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La Mesa CA

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


George Washington School, circa 1960

Sawdust, waxy crayons, and sweaty boys with Brylcreemed hair
A dank cloak room full of cubbies and hooks, battered metal lunch boxes all in a line
Sturdy clunky saddle shoes protect busy feet, sagging thin socks rimmed in lace
Legs cross Indian style on sleek waxed linoleum, hands fold, eyes straight, lips purse
Squeaky bottoms slip on polished wood chairs, teddy bear name plates taped to each desk
Peppermint paste sticks to chubby fingers
Cinnamon graham crackers dunk in miniature cartons of warm milk
Thick graphite pencils scribble on dittoed worksheets, the odor fading as they pass down the rows, pages still damp with a chemical smell
Slight whiff of teacher’s floral-scented perfume as she bends down to correct “borrows” and “carries”
Fat clumsy hands clutch stubby dull scissors jaggedly cutting stiff bright paper
Dusty chalk on an old green board, piles of yellow flakes billow out
Freshly mixed paint drips, powder and water bubbling thick in used cottage cheese containers
Flimsy pastel paper clipped to a towering easel awaits the first stroke from a clean brush
Stale chlorine rises as water leaks out of a rusted faucet, white powdered baking soda soap wet, hardens as it dries in lumps
Rough brown paper towels like compressed bark stick and tear as they wipe wet hands
Rainbow colors swirl into brown as they suck down the moldy drain
Smooth pages of glossy books, the plastic odor of a new doll
Dick, Jane and little Sally, baffling book people with their stilted dialogue and perfect mommy
George Washington Elementary School, a universe of possibilities

- Carol Schnaubelt