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Smell: Decayed

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


Grandmother’s house

Circa 1812


dirt floor


open door

odor was a strong wall


coal bin


root cellar



monster furnace.


Do we dare

go down there?



A Desert Morning: One for the Nose

In the summer of 1950, we lived on Poppy St. Neighborhood kids rode bikes past bright patches of California poppies that proud neighbors had planted. In the August fog, poppies smelled like cut cucumbers on newly cut grass, the same scent as wet afternoons in Houghton Park, our bike destination. The park, over 30 acres and just outside the Long Beach central district, was scratched by miles of bike trails into the bush.

Sandstone channels cut through the night-blooming perfume-rich jasmine. Bike rides through the flowering bushes meant well-scented eight and nine year old boys who reeked of perfume, but who hadn't the faintest idea what that suggested to their mothers.

My mom said: "Son, who have you been seeing at the park?" Then, she smiled. "The smell on your shirt is a sure give-away. You better throw it in the wash."

"Yuck," I said.

In early October that year I would leave the jasmine of Houghton Park. Sadly, Mom had lost a two-year baby boy to leukemia two years before. Dad wanted to get relief for her from the city and its memories. He looked at property in the desert: abundant, cheap and far away. We ended up with an old fruit and date shop in a distant desert town, Cathedral City. He said we would like it, though it would take a little getting used to. 

Here, Mom would be able to empty herself of grief.

About 100 miles from the perfumed bushes of Houghton Park was a desert hole, our new home. It was October and it smelled dry to the bone. While my city park began its mornings in fog, the desert would only now begin to shake off the residual heat of sun-embedded stone. It would be a month before I could smell the moisture in the fall air. 

Our new home, ten miles and twenty years south of Palm Springs sat in a settlement called Tramview, a 100 yard stretch of asphalt called Highway 111, a mile west of Cathedral City and the Whitewater River wash. In late September when we arrived with our 25-foot trailer, the asphalt began to scream heat as early as mid-morning. Early on, I stood out on the asphalt highway at high noon and looked toward Cathedral City. I saw a shimmering mirage past the wash on the edge of town. I imagined a hot steam iron rose in the air, the smell of Highway 111 at noon on a September day.

I brought my bike from Long Beach. I did dry wheelies behind dad's shop, but didn't dare ride into the snake-filled hills behind us. In the city my buddies and I used to chase squirrels up trees with our bikes. In the desert by myself, I chased jackrabbits into holes that pocketed the desert floor. In the city, a squirrel might mess up and lose the chase. Not a chance with Jack, the Rabbit, as I called him. He was sleek and quick. 

Often, Jack came to sniff around the shop where dad sold an odd mix of grapefruit and nuts. That October afternoon, I saw Jack snooping around the date crates. The sweet, sticky residue of the Deglet Noors had captured him, lured him out of his hole, teased him into making the big dare. He glanced at me. I grabbed a branch from the creosote bush. 

"Catch me if you can, Mr. Boy”, Jack sniffed. 

I flailed the branch. He hightailed it past a creosote bush, past the ocotillo, past the smoke tree, past the tumbleweed that suddenly snapped its roots and rolled toward Highway 111. Fat chance the weed would make it intact across the road. This was October, the beginning of tourist season and the cars steadied into a stream from mid-morning on. 

Jack was long gone into the bush. 

It was late afternoon now. He'd be back at night but by then, Dad would have secured the date crates in the shop. No dessert for Jack.

The sun slipped behind Mt. San Jacinto, the peak that rose from the desert floor to crest on a razor precipice. The sun abandoned the place completely about seven o'clock and left little moisture to reconstitute itself. By morning the dry, vacant air of the previous afternoon would become cool again to emerge as a catalyst for the aromas imbedded in the desert floor. 

In yesterday's heat, Jack's scat dried odorless but regained its pungency through the night. 

At sunrise, the prickly pear flowers perked up, suggesting how seductively sweet its bulbous fruit would be. The purple verbena became freshly cut daisies sprouting from a vase on the dining room table. The sagebrush, not really sage, smelled of Thanksgiving dressing.

But the morning air also brought a stench, a definite stench that pervaded the desert, stretching from our 1940s trailer house to the sand hills across the valley. A visitor might have pointed to our outhouse, just behind the shop. But, no, the morning dew securely contained that odor and left it to bloom in the late afternoon sun. 

The odor of distinction came from the gangly creosote, its branches and shiny leaves, which were the size of fly's wings. Its glistening, olive-green leaves stuck to my fingers and left a strongly scented resin that permeated the air, always in the morning hours, but especially after rain. The gnarled, gray, sparsely foliated offshoots branched out like lightening from a plasma ball. I had used one of its branches to threaten Jack, long-gone.

The creosote bulb produced yellow flowers almost all year round, but primarily in spring, followed by a silver-furred round berry, easy to pick and adventurous to chew. The silver fuzz ball, dainty and cute, was nothing but a beast that harmed. Jackrabbits survived its sting when eaten, but, strangely, mountain goats and sheep did not. Sheep died; mountain goats staggered off to find a place of rest to relieve the pain. Dumb cows, however, were smart enough to ignore it. 

When planted in a garden with abundant water, the creosote bush reached twelve feet in height, but why would anyone want to unleash this noxious beast? 

The creosote was a bad neighbor. Root the creosote next to a healthy plant at its peril. The foul-smelling greasewood, another of its names, does not tolerate company and, if the company overstays its welcome, pain and suffering, if not death, followed. I knew a man up in Cathedral Canyon who grew large creosote, near which thrived his treasured boxwood hedge. The creosote suffered the hedge for five years. Then, the once healthy boxwood became yellow and sickly. Its neighbor, the creosote, remained green and triumphant.

Desert rains pumped up the pungency of the resin. Rain was so rare that anything associated with it was memorable. Get close to an old telephone pole and smell the real creosote: acrid, a little gassy, like melting tar. The pole won't evoke memories. But creosote forges indelible ones. They pervade the desert landscape and, as all noxious creatures, call attention to themselves: the smell of burnt resin, the hard sticky touch of their leaves or their gangly body, branches electrified.

For some, the desert is nature in its purest state. The primeval forest, however, reeks of decay in its fecundity. Dead fish and seaweed putrefy the beach. The desert, by contrast, is pristine, clean, and brisk in the winter, white hot in summer. It is nature in its Edenic state without the sin of human flesh, a place where human flesh does not survive the summer, anyway. 

But that is not our Eden; it is Satan's and his viper's.

At first whiff after a rain, the smells of the desert seem pure, then fall into an aroma of decay. The scent attacks nostrils with hot resin irritation. The creosote deadens feeling, yet makes vulnerable the sinuses and stings them with a scorpion's hook.

The purity of a summer morning breeze, hot, pristine, skin boiling is cast against the acrid bitterness of a bush. 

As a Boy Scout, I encamped one night under the stars next to large creosote. I could not sleep. While the jackrabbits foraged on the desert floor for crickets, I fidgeted. I inched my sleeping bag north a few feet, then east, then west to escape the smell. 

I could not rest. 

Creosote was everywhere. 

I could not find a place to hide. Jack's hole was too narrow.

When I returned home, my mother thought I was sick.

- Don Mayfield

The Smell of Religion

When I was a kid, our family belonged to East San Diego Presbyterian Church. Going to Sunday services made me admire my shoes. Black patent Mary Janes. There wasn’t much else to look at. Sometimes I gazed at the tall brass pipes of the organ, but I soon wore them out as a topic. 

I smoothed my dress over my knees and felt like a frog in taffeta. I entertained myself by watching dust motes drop in slo mo from the high ceiling. Halfway down, they disappeared and reappeared through bands of red, green, and blue sunlight churched by the stained glass windows. The specks fell softly with the cachet of a secret in plain sight, and they explained the dry scent that sighed through the sanctuary. 

The highbacked, dark-wood pews smelled of corners: right angles harboring mites and must. Their cousins, the hymnals, smelled the same. This fit the songs. We mouthed the words, verse after verse, wishing for salvation.

Flowers were laid out in tall vases on either side of the altar. Sprays of pink gladioli, yellow-orange alstromeria, white carnations, magenta stargazer lilies backed by ferns. Outside, in the world, blossoms typically opened and spilled their sweet scent like wanton barmaids. But in church, flowers stalled out and festered, drowning in their own water. 

Since ceremonial food had been promised, I hoped that delicious smells were on the way. But at communion, the wafer erased itself. We had been told that it was Christ’s body showing up as bread, but where was the loafy smell -- that scent of yeast that made a person feel expansive and worthy of butter and jam? Likewise, the odor of the little tippance of communion wine danced for an instant and then evaporated too. 

From the parishioners rose the faint smell of humans scrubbed presentable: Lifebuoy soap, Brilliantine hair pomade, Aqua Net hairspray. A nip of Old Spice. Sometimes a wisp of perfume slid by that was more Saturday night than Sunday morning: White Shoulders, Hypnotique, Primitif. 

But in the summer, since air-conditioning was not, we suffered. Most people didn’t trouble themselves with that newfangled antiperspirant stuff. So we smelled. But being Presbyterians, no one spoke of it. At the end of the service, we stepped out into superheated air with the scent of abraded iron. Families drove straight home, where parents threw off their shoes and put their feet up on the hassock, fanning themselves with a pleated section of last night’s Evening Tribune. Kids kicked up a wet grass and mud smell in the backyard by chasing each other with the hose. 

But except for hot-weather sweat, Presbyterianism didn’t smell much. Scent felt excessive. Foreign. Papist.

In a short romance with the Catholic Church, I attended mass with a circle of black lace bobbypinned to the top of my head. But Catholic-smell shocked me. Ecclesiastic candles swooned everywhere, waxing the air -- a thousand tiny fires burning like Saint Teresa. Incense smoked down the aisle in steaming metal pots swung by altar boys. This was not democracy. It was a monarchy of scent and everyone knelt to it. 

And, whenever we smell something, we feel it before we can think about it. Maybe that’s why smell tells us where we belong. I eventually found my sanctuary in the piney Sierras, and most of all, in the fresh scent of the sea.

- Anitra Carol Smith

The Scent and Safety of a Screen

When you are only three feet tall, you experience doors differently. I remember standing outside my grandparents' cabin in the hot Colorado sun, my nose pressed up against the rusty metal of the old wooden screen door. I remember the sound as it slammed, the little hook closure jingling against its frame. The rust dust clouded around the screen for a few seconds following the impact. After a session standing close to the little mesh wires, I would sport an orange nose until some fastidious adult wiped it off. There was something enticing about the acrid, dusty metal smell. I often ended up licking the screen as my grandmother doddered about inside the cool log cabin. 

I waited there, in limbo, as she would say, "Go out and play. I'll be out in a minute." This meant that in all likelihood, she would never exit through that door. As I peered in from the outside, I could see her silhouette move about the room. On occasion, I got a soggy whiff of an overcooked pot roast or the startling stench of moth balls as the little molecules moved through the mesh. At other times she sat at an antique dressing table and I watched her monochrome outline as she slowly brushed her hair, the inky smell of bluing followed. Sometimes silence descended subsequent to the sudden squeak of bed springs and I knew she was down for a nap. The sun, its heat and the stillness stole the odor of pitchy pines, bitter green mountain grass, yellow cakey dandelions, and the chalk of blue columbine like an old, oily army tarp. The snap of grasshoppers and occasional shriek of a blue jay only made the quiet sound deeper, more still. The red sandy soil heated up and smelled like baked mud bread next to the doorway. 

As the afternoon wore on, I sat - my back comfortable against the stretched screen. The stark white thunderclouds fulminated and grew; my temples throbbed as air pressure increased. I leaned on the screen and watched the billowing, enormous clouds turn from white to black. The far off thunder rumbled, the vibration jingling the latch on the door. The air smelled of electric crackle, like the pop of a green pea pod. I ached from the sensual world around me, from loneliness and boredom, from the fear that my grandmother would remember I was there, from the need for my brother to return, my father, and my grandfather. 

I was the youngest, and a girl wasn't allowed to go when they waded into the South St. Vrain and fished for rainbow trout, their creels filled with pulled grass and the slimy smell of fish. My grandfather alleged girls were too delicate to stomp through the wild-flower scented meadows to his favorite fishing holes. My mother and sister were off doing girl things in the city, which left me in a kind of sexless condition - too young to participate in girl things, too much girl to go and fish. So I was there, alone with Grandmother and her Victorian hysteria, her sweet powder puffs, her anxiety attacks, her fainting spells, and slap-you-in-the-face odor of ammonium smelling salts; alone as her too, too sweet Eau de Toilette perfume drifted through the screen with her snores. Thunder outside, thunder inside, I giggled as I licked the rust, rubbed orange rust powder all over my face, and prayed she would never come out that door.

Carrie Danielson