SCENT MEMORY by Lisa Pierce Flores
THAT WINTER THEY LIVED in the worst apartment yet, above Carmello’s Fresh Fish, in a creaky one-bedroom that always smelled like fish. Every day Molly could smell it, white fish with its slightly buttery, slightly brackish smell, the darker meatier smells of salmon and halibut, oily clams and mussels, briny lobsters, all seeping up through the splintering floorboards, the cracked and crusted linoleum, the patches of moldy carpet. When she woke up in the afternoon for her night shift at the hospital, the wet, pungent smell of fish coated her nostrils. When she was at work she would breathe in the scent of disinfectant and the high it gave her was secondary to the efficiency with which the burning sting of ammonia supplanted the remnants of the aroma of fish. Every morning as she walked back home from work she tried to hold onto the stringent smells of solvents until she spotted the storefront and it smacked her like a wave: salty and pungent and fetid as the sea at low tide.
Even her dreams provided no sanctuary. Every night she walked along foamy beaches, on the slick decks of boats, on docks festooned with rowboats, by the banks of fish-filled lakes. Sometimes she was riding in a car with her dad, returning from a long morning of creek fishing with her dad, their poles sticking out the open back window of the station wagon, pails of perch in the back seat waiting to be cleaned and then chopped up into a chowder by her mom. Sometimes she was walking with her mom and sister at low tide, the beach house in sight, the sun setting in stretches of filmy pink.
Then she would wake up and she would think for just a moment that maybe she was really there. There and not here. Back at the lake house or at the shore, and Mom and Dad and Katie nearby, maybe waiting for her, always the last to wake up, making her breakfast, near enough for her to touch them. And then the seafood smell would mingle in with the dusty resin smell of pot and the musty smell of Junior beside her, his tattooed back to her, and she would know just where she was and how far from them she’d drifted, how out of reach they were. Two months worth of waking dissolved, the fog of fish-themed dreams carrying her to the kitchen where the sound of her footsteps awakened the cockroaches into clicking retreat under the humming refrigerator.
Then one day, just like that, the smell was gone.
She might not have noticed it if Junior had been home. They would have done a few lines and the bracing effect of the cocaine would have blocked out anything else, at least for a while. But Junior wasn’t home, probably out making a connection, and, as she unscrewed the metal top from the yellow jar to release the scent of their residual stash – not the skunky homegrown Junior sold to the too-dumb-to-know-any-better college kids, but the delicate hybrid weed Junior saved for just the two of them – she realized that she couldn’t smell anything at all.
And for once, she couldn’t hear anything either. Not the scuttle of the cockroach armies, not the rustling of rats out by the market’s trashcans, not Junior waking up at the sound of her key in the door, reaching his self-satisfied hands behind the back of his head and calling out to her, “In here, Sweet Thing.” Not Junior screaming and swearing about some deal that didn’t go his way or some “customer” who owed him money. Not Junior pleading “C’mon baby” for sex when she was too tired from cleaning up puke and piss and shit all night at the hospital, not Junior begging her to never, never leave.
She sat on their unmade bed, the orange stripe sheets faded to the color of west Carolina clay, no box spring, just the flat dirty mattress on the veined linoleum floor, cradling the yellow jar in her lap with one hand and tapping the tip of her nose with the other, panicked at the sudden absence of the hated smell of fish.
She’d been 17 when she met Junior, electric-eyed and dangerous, dealing on the boardwalk at the shore, the summer her father had died, the summer she’d started failing all her classes and Katie had said she hated her for making things even harder for their mom. And Katie, perfect Katie, had said, “Why don’t you just get lost? Can’t you see how you’re killing our mother too?” And so she’d stolen $450 from her mother’s cash drawer under the phone book in the kitchen (leaving $50 for Katie and Mom, just in case they couldn’t get to the cash machine before they needed it for something), and she’d left with Junior in his tricked-out Camaro.
Junior had wanted to steal her mother’s car, a Mercedes, but at least she hadn’t gone along with that. Would she have done it now if he asked? When was the last time she’d told Junior “no”? Five years had gone by and would Mom or Katie even want her back, a drug addict who’d apparently snorted so much coke and snuffed so many chemicals she’d stripped her nasal passages, killed her sense of smell? From working at the hospital she knew it could happen, had heard the grunted disgust of the nurses shaking their heads at the “junkies.” As in junk, as in trash, as in what she’d become. And why would mom or Katie want trash in their lives? It was the kind of thing Junior said when he was afraid she might leave. He was right, wasn’t he? Always right. He knew about people.
She brought the tinted glass jar to her face again and this time she thought she could smell the pot, only it didn’t smell sweet to her. It smelled like over-baked earth, and a little like dung and very dirty clothes. She took the baggy out and set it beside her on the pilled piss-colored blanket. Then she stuck her nose in the jar until its edges rested on her bottom lip and the bridge of her nose. She breathed in deeply. She could just make out the scent of honey that had been in the jar four years ago, before they’d emptied the last of it onto pieces of bread and started using it to store their stash. It reminded her of the jars of honeycomb and preserves and berry-lined moonshine her father’s patients would bring when they drove into town from the Carolina mountains for their appointments and didn’t have enough cash to pay him.
Molly leaned her head back, grateful for the faint smell of her own over-medicated sweat; she could still smell that even if the fish and filth were missing. She wasn’t that far gone, at least. Not yet. She sighed and let her shoulders hang, her head roll from side to side on her neck. Then she thought, “I’m used to it.” She felt her heart ride up into her throat, throbbing. “I’m so used to it I don’t even notice anymore.”
The jar was still in her lap. She set it aside, next to the grayed plastic bag of pot, and stood up to look at herself in the dusty mirror some previous tenant had hung on the closet door. She ran her hands through her lank hair and touched her fingers to her face. Gray skin hung loosely from her cheekbones, her sunken eyes were rimmed in purple. She was so thin her hip bones stuck out from the pink drawstring scrubs she’d worn to work the night before. Would they even recognize her?
She went to the kitchen and took a paper grocery bag from under the sink, crushing a few laggard insects under her bare feet along the way. Back in the bedroom she opened the closet and pulled out a sweater and jeans, a few pairs of underwear, socks, T-shirts. She’d leave everything else. When she came home they would buy her new things, things he’d never touched, never seen her in. They had to. Please, God, let them want to buy me all new things, clean and unstained. She closed her eyes and shook her head to hold in any tears. She didn’t have time for tears yet. It was about the time Junior would have been coming back from even his longest-lasting binges, his most convoluted deals. Her time was running out.
She untied the drawstring to her work scrubs and stepped out of them. In the bathroom she yanked at the string that hung down from the fluorescent light bulb and hopped a bit as she washed the bug carcasses from her feet, jamming one foot into the sink, then the other. She grabbed a twice-used towel from a hook on the door and threw it on the floor. She wiped her feet and shivered a little, nearly grinned. Twisting her feet on the towel reminded her of Mom and Dad practicing the Carolina shag with her and Katie when they were little. She felt elated, like drugs used to make her feel.
Back in the bedroom she pulled on a clean T-shirt and her least shabby pair of jeans. Then she bent down and picked up the baggie of pot and the jar from off the bed and placed them on the dresser. She stuck her slender hand in the jar past her skinny wrist, until she felt the roll of bills at the bottom, then she clasped it between two fingers and pulled it out through the neck of the jar.
It wasn’t all Junior’s anyway. Some of it was from her job at the hospital. She pushed the baggie back through the mouth of the jar, gently so that it wouldn’t tear and none of the pot would spill onto the floor. Then she picked up the roll of bills and held it in her hand, measuring the weight of it. She peeled a $50 from the center of the roll, twisted it into a tight, thin tube, and flicked it back into the jar.
She shoved the rest of the cash into her jeans and headed for the door, cradling the paper bag full of clothes under her armpit, hugging it to herself.
LISA PIERCE FLORES' writing has appeared in numerous magazines, journals, and newspapers, including Willow Springs, Poem, Inkwell, Stand Magazine, and The New York Times. Her book, The History of Puerto Rico was published by Greenwood Press in 2009.