Friday, October 26, 2012

Posts from the Road - The Scents of Memory

I choose many things by the scent of them. Scent is the key part of taste. People that lose their sense of smell often lose their enjoyment of food. Smell is transport or torment, as simple as hunger, as complex as love. Scent is memory, simply the whiff of something takes us back.

The smell of  Revlon Charlie perfume, worn the six months I spent in London on an assignment years ago where I bought some in an apothecary, the fresh clean air smell of raw corn silk, brushing my nose as I waited in an Indiana blind. Rosemary baking on bread and the floral steam scent that was my Mom hand ironing everything in our house, including the sheets, while I played with my little Tonka trucks underfoot. Waking up now, the faint scent of shampoo, sandlewood and vanilla on my pillow.

The smells of childhood are all their own, be it your own childhood or that of your children. Clean milky skin, the scent of fresh grass, bicycle oil and band aids, the bite of apple in a school lunchbox, soap bubbles and Hershey's chocolate. The teen years are simply a smell of angst, gangly legs and sweat, locker rooms, Right Guard deodorant, burnt rubber, that lay as real today as that of a dead red rose that lay in a drawer, the scent of which, to this day, rends your heart like a veil.

Then the smell of a hospital, a smell I hate to this day, watching someone become more and more body and less and less self, until the self was so wrapped up in pain all that was left was the body, wasting away, releasing its scent to the room. Yet I could still hug them and could still smell, if only in my mind, the warmth of cookies, the smell of Wind Song perfume and baby shampoo. Not for me, an end like that, lay me out where I smell only fresh rain or motor oil, release me to the wild, to become part of it, then never look back.

Scents are like colors, bringing back memories some would wish swept away. Crayons, Flesh and Indian Red, colors not politically incorrect, and soon bleached to remove possible offense. Just as some mask the breathy clean musk of natural beauty with too much powder and perfume, covering up that which is innately desirable. But scent, like colorful crayons, remains vivid in memory, drawing horizons on pieces of paper that went back home to that kitchen that smelled of perfume and cinnamon. I can still walk through my childhood home and take in those scents, of yeast and meat, spice and coffee, tracing them with my noise through alleyways of retrospection, cataloging them with the smells of other things, marionberry pie, fresh bread and fresh cotton, the exhaust of a muscle car.

There are scents that in just one moment, take us back to a place, a single, distinct point of time.

The stale air in a bedroom, the smell of sleep laying deep in your throat as your brain refuses to rest. You watch someone sleeping, looking at that exposed place on their neck where the sheet and their hair almost meet, the skin laying pale in the moonlight. Flesh, bridging a contrast between soft silky hair that smells faintly of sandlewood and the sheets pure smell of crisp softness. You place your lips on that space of skin, inhaling softly and deep, breathing in the balm of future tears.

The oily jet smell of a turbine engine blowing up and out from the hot eternal darkness of a engine, the odor rising like flame and blowing cleanly back, across tarmac. You never forget that odor, the vivid, dead perfume that is a dinosaur cooked on a kerosene stove, coating everything it touches

That particular smell followed me throughout the years. The air smells like brimstone, upon the disembodied plane of it, our shadows move, walking in grids, slowing, not stopping, as if our shadows only congealed for a moment, in proximate musings.

That coppery smell of blood for me, is not just a smell of maturation, it's a visceral journey to those places I've stood, the blaze of remaining fire swimming in my eyes like two tiny torches, daring me to tear up. I don't, I can't. Not here, not now. The tears will travel back, harsh, sparse swift drops, brought back with the scent of soundless explosions and cold fire, to be gathered up into a sealed red container, where they remain as I drive home.

But, there are other smells, so many smells now, that bring only smiles. The smell of wet dog, soaked and tireless, rushing from the water that beads on his dense fur, as slow as chilled glycerin. The smell of green, as the wheels of an airplane pull away from it, the length and breadth of life measured in the takeoff run on a freshly mowed runway. Garlic baking, a peppery meat infused scent of Merlot poured into glasses at lunchtime, stealing away from work and duty for a few days of leave in a city foreign of sight and scent, dim sum and sourdough, the salty scent of an oceans' release.

There is the smell of fresh bluing, the smell of the first handgun I ever bought. I held it, taking in the deep blued finish that seemed to hold all reluctant light and breath, feeling the weight in my hand, the scent of cold steel bracing me. Then I simply stepped up and fired it. A single shot, in which a lifetime lay behind me. A single shot, upon the bare and pock marked wall, the shadow of its form shuddered in what was not the wind, but my own trepidations, until holding it steady, I squeezed the trigger with one intake of virgin breath.

In that moment, in the rich, trembling roar of its power, the trepidation fell behind and I knew that this would be one desire that would stay with me always. In that moment, the sounds and smell of every old hunting rifle I had ever shot came in that single converging brace of gunpowder smell and noise that was that moment, spoiling me for anything else.

So many smells, so many memories. Food and wine, and guns and love, all intertwined, the power and the need of it all. I wonder what scents tomorrow will bring to store up for later? The rain has passed, a deep cleansing rain that's washed from the sky all burden and need. I open the window just an inch, curtains inhaling in and out with the scent of fresh air that is as new as the day waiting to be breathed in deep.


Eric said...

I would love to know what brand of oil Colt's uses on their pistols, because that case at my LGS smells so good.

Auntie J said...

I once took several weeks of writing workshops.

One of the exercises we did involved a bunch film canisters that were passed around the room. We had to smell them until one of them triggered a memory.

I couldn't put a name to the one that flooded me with a memory of my dad. All I knew was that it smelled like our garage (it was a small handful of cotton squares, soaked in gasoline).

And I wrote feverishly, remembering the time that my dad had bought this tar-like black rust-proofing paint. He was going to use it on the underside of our family's Suburban, to protect the undercarriage. The paint had the unique quality that, the wetter it got, the tighter it clung to the metal, keeping the water off. It was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and it was swelteringly hot. Dad had dutifully read the instructions on the paint, bought the correct solvent to get the paint off his hands at the end of the job, and got to work.

What he forgot to read was the instructions on the solvent itself, which noted that intense heat made the paint cure faster...regardless of what the paint was on, be it skin or metal.

And so, at the end of the dirty job, Dad went into our half bath and proceeded to try to scrub off the paint with the solvent (and, as my sister later recalled, screamed like a girl). Nothing doing. The paint had cured. It was not coming off.

Dilemma: Dad led the worship singing at church on Sunday mornings. Copious use of his hands was involved.

Rather than bemoaning his blackened hands, or trying to paint over the black with flesh-tones, he chose to use them as an object lesson instead. He wore his good gray leather gloves and proceeded to direct the music nonchalantly (he swore us to secrecy).

At the end of the worship time, he talked about how things can appear nice and clean on the outside, but on the inside (and here he whipped off his gloves with a flourish), they can be black as coal.

Effective, if I do say so.

That story happened more than 20 years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday.

zdogk9 said...

I was about 20 just before I was drafted, was walking from Short Sands to the over look on NeahKahNie, the smell of the spruce pollen still triggers memories.

Keads said...

I know where you are now. Not as deeply yet but just as hard. I do not envy you. All my prayers and hopes.

Bob said...

Some smells are gone forever, such as the smell of the creosote works that we'd pass on our way to my maternal grandparents' house. I grew to love that particular smell.

I also miss the smell of Coppertone suntan spray that my mom would apply to our skin at the beach, the aerosol cold as it hit our flesh, causing us to caper about and emit little shrieks.

And the unique rubbery smell of the interior of a Volkswagen Beetle, who can forget that?

I miss the smell of an old-fashioned barber shop, also; the mix of hot shave cream, aftershaves and hair tonic. Couldn't stand the horrid smell of a woman's hair salon, though, and I'd usually sit in the car rather than wait in the lobby while my mom had her hair "washed and set."

Another favorite smell memory was of a particular shop in the Gainesville (FL) Mall, the Korn Kettle: they sold fresh popped popcorn and cotton candy, two bewitching smells to young children. I have to guess that the teens employed there to make the stuff and sell it to the smaller kids grew to hate the smell, but we loved it.

Everett said...

Looking at the front sump on that round motor triggered my smeller rememberances! All kinds of things mostly in the airplane and eating good stuff venues! Thanks for a great post

Alan von Altendorf said...

The air smells like brimstone, upon the disembodied plane of it... harsh, sparse swift drops, brought back with the scent of soundless explosions... a freshly mowed runway... a peppery meat... one intake of virgin breath.

I'd give my eye teeth to write like that.


Ken O said...

Wow. Reading that brought about the unbidden memory of the mingled smells of Calvin Klein's Eternity, fresh hay, and first love. My sense of smell is largely gone, but I can still smell the memories.