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Smell: Chemical

Loves Me All the Time

A sailboat slides by on the bay. The smell of oily Sea and Ski suntan lotion fills the air. It’s a hot summer day and the Kona Kai Club bustles with adults, teens and tots. I’m in trouble. My brother hit me and I had to chase him around the pool and my dad yelled at me to sit down. I knew running was against the rules, but I couldn’t help it. I cried and said I wanted to go home but Dad said no. Now I’m glued to my towel, it’s too noisy and too hot to sleep and I just want to escape. 

My stupid brother does a cannonball into the pool and splashes me. He bobs up, sticks out his tongue and crosses his eyes. I don’t take the bait and he finally swims away. I check Dad who’s lighting a cigarette, sneak away and tiptoe along the concrete over to the deserted Children’s Pool in a shady corner. 

The sun sparkles off the turquoise circle through tall palm trees. My small feet wade down the steps to the center of the pool and I bend my knees so that the cool water comes almost up to my chin. The sharp chlorine smell tickles my nose and I know if I dunk my head under and swim around for a while my blonde hair will turn icky green again. 
I clap my hands twice and swish them through the shiny blue water. Then close my eyes and begin to sing one of my father’s favorite songs. 

Sugar in the morning. Sugar in the evening. Sugar at suppertime. 
Be my little sugar and love me all the time.

As I turn in slow circles, the metal drain massages my bare feet and my voice echoes off the edge of the pool. When he sings that song to me, I know he’s happy. If he hasn’t had too many beers and isn’t slurring his words, I believe that he really does love me all the time.

I repeat the song again and continue in circles until I hear his voice call, “Jilliebeaner, it’s time to go!” I look up and see he’s smiling at me holding my towel open and I know then the words to the song are true.

- Jill G. Hall


Scents Memory

“Those pancakes are burning! Can’t you smell them?” 

In fact I cannot, as my mate well knows. Ditto garlic sizzling in hot sesame oil, and spice cake just out of the oven. Likewise the Mexican marigolds in the garden, their foliage bruised by a tossing wind, and the cold, wet-cardboard smell of a rare rainy day. Too the cedarn atmosphere within a stand of redwoods—my favorite fragrance—and the aura of heat blowing in from the east: a Mississippi of air.

I savor these only in memory. My sense of smell faded about a decade ago, a sign (I found out later) of progressing Parkinson’s disease. It was a loss so gradual and unobtrusive that I didn’t notice until the sense was quite gone. Because they’re so closely linked, my sense of taste is crippled as well: I can detect only saltiness, sweetness, or the burn of capsaicin (which causes the heat you feel when eating chili peppers, and which I’m not even sure is a flavor). The smell and taste sensations appear to me as phantoms—brain-invented illusions without basis or cause—in the most incongruous situations. Lingering in bed in the morning, dozing and waking in short cycles, I’ll catch the salty splatter of bay water and the sinus-stinging smoke from cheap gas churning in the violent wake of the ski boat my family had when I was a teenager. Working the odorless decomposed granite that answers for soil in my vegetable plot, my mouth waters from the smell of popping corn or the taste of hot chocolate.

It’s hard not to be bitter over what I’ve lost: two-fifths of my interface with the world (though, being honest, I’d rather live without taste and smell than sight and hearing). I try to focus on and be grateful for the mechanism, whatever it is, that still allows me to relish the greasy aroma of fat rendered from browning bacon, or the sharp, astringent perfume of lavender soap, even if the former comes during a performance of act two of La Boheme and the latter while driving to the DMV to renew my license. Most of all I treasure the odd, disorienting moments when my senses suddenly return, and I breathe in the incense of the week-old garbage I’m carrying out to the bin. Seconds later, my burden is again odorless, blank as ice, and my memory book one glorious, fragrant chapter richer.

- Jim Brega


Window Shades and Linoleum

From 1934 until the 1960’s, my parents owned Harry Smith Shade and Linoleum Company in North Park at 2912 University, where Off the Record is now. At the front half of our shop, six-foot-high rolls of linoleum lined up in rows. I had favorites like the Armstrong abstracts with pieces of shine in them that caught the light. Or a pattern called Tessera made of tiny mosaic squares. (You can sometimes still see Tessera on the bathroom floors of old restaurants.) All of the linoleum smelled like its white asbestos fiber backing: A businesslike, chemical scent something like asphalt, sharp and unmistakable.


But down in the basement, the big nine-foot rolls of linoleum lay lengthwise on the floor like felled trees. After my father died in 1956, the work of unrolling and slicing lengths off those giants fell to my mom and her new helper, a young single mother named Carol Arnold. That linoleum got its scent from its dark gray tarpaper backing. You could pick up its tar smell as soon as you came down the wooden stairs.


During World War II, because the government was afraid of bombing raids, San Diegans were ordered to buy regulation window shades to black out the city at night. Lines formed around the block leading into our window shade store. After the war, people were glad to switch out their dark green shades for eggshell, white, and cream, and later on, pale blue, sunshiny yellow, and a soft green. In the fifties, when customers were starting to feel expansive from having a little extra cash, they wanted the ends of their window shades cut into fancy designs like scallops. They wanted them trimmed in rickrack or fringe. 


The ten-by-ten-foot shade-making table stood on six-by-six-inch square wooden legs. A soft dusty scent came from underneath where shelves stored cutting tools and scraps of window shade material.


We sewed a casement across the bottom of each window shade for a wooden slat. So, from time to time, a light odor of sawdust and fresh pinewood would puff out in the back of the store when somebody pushed a long slat into the cutter and smashed down the heavy handle to cut it to length. 


Twenty-foot ceilings in the store kept the place cool, and the scent that drifted through that coolness was the signature smell of our shop: the soft, oily, painty odor of window shade fabric. 


Today, I go into Off the Record in North Park once in a while so that I can press the metal thumb tab on the old door handle and hear it click. The same heavy front door closes behind me with its familiar chonk. But the new owners have installed an acoustic tile ceiling nine feet up, so you can no longer see the mark my dad put on the wall at 12’ 11 7/8”, which was his world pole-vaulting record. The old scents of our shop are gone too, replaced now by the 1950’s vintage smell of vinyl records.

- Anitra Carol Smith


Night-blooming Jasmine

It made people want to make love. Or jump in the Ford and drive all night to Albuquerque with the top down, listening to Johnny Hodges’ play “Harlem Nocturne.” Except that we were too languid and indecisive from the heat.


In my East San Diego neighborhood, jasmine bloomed in deep summer. On nights too clear and hot for sleep, its heavysweet scent crept across yards and down alleys, over fences, into open windows, touching everything with a knowing hand. 


The jasmine wasn’t ours. Our family knew better. Even gardening books warn, “Do not plant cestrum nocturnum under your bedroom window because the powerful fragrance may keep you awake.” No. Someone else had been incautious.


It was the aroma that led me on my only nighttime escapade. I was 14. One night, Johnny, a neighbor kid who smoked and was 15, threw pebbles against my bedroom window. I slid off my bed and pulled on some jeans and a shirt. I lifted the screen off the side window and skidded over the windowsill into the fragrance of the night. 


“Come on,” Johnny whispered. “Let’s go to Franklin.”


On the school playground, I grabbed the high bar, walked my feet up the pole and threw my leg over to sit on top. I could smell the cold metallic odor on my hands from gripping the bars. The jasmine seemed fainter here, and the playground gave off its usual dry smell of sand. 


On the next bar over, Johnny hung by his knees, smoking upside down. We talked. After a while, we held hands and walked home into the fury of my mother’s wrath.


As escapades go, it was pretty tame. But after a summer in the backyard glider reading “Lassie Come Home,” and “The Three Musketeers,” it was odd. Jasmine-struck.

- Anitra Carol Smith


Olfactory Alarm Clock: Tucson Summer, 1965-1975

When the swamp cooler kicked at 7:00 in the morning it woke me with a dusty funk. Unlike the first ignition of the heater in winter when the hot air on the cold metal vent emits a choking burnt dust smell, the swamp cooler blows hot desert air through water-soaked hemp pads, creating a muddy, slightly fishy aroma.  Maybe the pads were doused in some kind of coolant or mold retardant back then, or maybe it was simply the mustiness of bacteria and mold spores that grew during winter, but hempish-chemical combination always reminded me of the inside of the Rexall pharmacy and the local hippie health food co-op at the same time.  Once the cooler got going awhile, the odor dissipated.  But despite the odd funk, the first burst of air in those ninety-degree Tucson mornings always smelled like a promise of relief.

That promise was always broken in the hundred-plus degree afternoons where we’d seek relief in the local pool.  I spent hours with the neighborhood kids, going in and out of the cool- chlorine-and-warm-pee water.  When our fingers got too pickled and pruny, we pressed our shivering bodies against our sun-warmed towels that were laid out on the concrete deck.  We inhaled the chlorinated steam rising from the cement, filtered through Tide-scented towels.   By the time we walked across the park to our cinder-block house across the street, we were hot and dry again.  I would plant myself directly under the hallway vent of the swamp cooler lifting my matted hair off my neck.  My dad invariably shooed me away, warning of catching coldor a stiff neck.”   Then Mom would pull me by the ponytail into the bathroom with a brush in her hand for a half-hour of tangled hair torture. 

Naturally, by the teenage years, I defied my parents.  Standing under the swamp cooler vent for as long as I wanted in my navy blue daisy bikini, I combed my own hair with a wide-tooth comb.  The perfumed spritz No More Tears conditioner in the swamp-cooled air created a new promise— one of peace, freedom, and independence.

- Judy Geraci