A light snow had dusted Marie’s red Nissan Sentra, which was still parked in front of Jim Bronson’s house. She had been quiet most of the ride back. When they pulled into the driveway, she asked, with the slightest bit of apprehension in her voice, “So what is it exactly do you want to show me in your basement? Does it have to do with your smell collection?”
Jim applied the parking break. He had trouble looking her in the eye so he looked straight ahead at the snow falling on the windshield.
“Yes, this is where I do my work,” he said. “I’ve never allowed anyone to see it, and I ask that you not touch anything. My work is very delicate. Even the slightest bit of contamination can render my smells impure.”
“Of course. I’ll be very careful.”
He shut off the engine and walked around to the passenger side to open the door for Marie.
“That was very gentlemanly of you, Jim,” she said as she stepped out of the car.
“Mother says that a gentleman must always open the door for a lady. I always opened the door for Mother, until she fell ill. Now she doesn’t pass through doors. Watch your step, I’m afraid the porch has some loose boards.”
The light flickered in the foyer as Jim flipped the switch. The front living room was immaculate. Mrs. Bronson had been an avid antique collector, and Jim had kept everything in precise order. Most of the rest of the house, however, was stacked with newspapers, magazines, and mail.
“Please wait here while I check on Mother,” he said in a very low voice. “I expect she’ll be napping.”
Marie stood in the foyer as Jim quietly ascended the wooden staircase to Mother’s room. She listened as Jim opened the door and spoke a few quiet words. She was more than a little nervous about being in Jim’s house. She wondered if she’d made a mistake coming here. She’d only known Jim for a few weeks, and although he had been very kind, he was also very odd.
In the living room, there was a picture of a man and a woman and a little boy. She looked very closely. It was Jim. And the man and woman must have been his parents. He had his mother’s eyes.
“People always said that I had my mothers eyes.”
She was startled. “Oh dear, I didn’t hear you coming. Is that your father in the picture?”
He stared at the floor as he spoke, never making eye contact. “Yes. His name was James. He died when I was only four. That’s when we moved here. It’s been just me and Mother for all the years since he died. She took care of me, and now I’m taking care of her.”
“She’s lucky to have such a devoted son.”
“Yes. And now, what I came to show you.”
He led her to the kitchen and unlocked the door to the basement. He turned on the light to the stairway and motioned for her to follow. The stairs were bare wood and creaked as they walked down them. It was very dark at the bottom. When he got to foot of the stairs, he flipped a series of switches and the room lit up, but only dimly. There were several hanging lights over two wooden tables. One had many shelves with bottles of varying size. Each one had a label with a number. On the other table there were flasks and bunson burners. And on it’s shelves there were many boxes and bottles of all sorts. There were stacks and stacks of folders, each one with a number on the tab. Also there was a laptop connected to a metal box the size of an armoire
“Wow. You have a lot of stuff down here. What do you do with all of this?”
“I’ve taken you on a tour of some of my smell collection, but not all of my smells are on location. This is where I synthesize smells. This is where I spend most of my time.”
“What about all of those bottles? What’s in them?” she asked.
“Those are my smells. Each bottle contains a specific smell. Here, “he reached for one, “this is smell number 140. It’s the old ball park at the fair grounds. Popcorn, beer, cut grass, roasted peanuts, hotdogs, cigarette smoke, and human urine. Of course, the new ballpark does not have the cigarette element, and has very little urine. They keep it much cleaner.”
He uncorked the bottle and held it to his nose.
“Here. You try it.”
He handed her the bottle and she sniffed it. Her eyes lit up.
“Jim! This is amazing. My dad used to take me to that ballpark. Oh my, it smells just like it. My dad took me to a game there when I was a little girl. It was on the fourth of July. There were fireworks at the end of the game.”
She handed the bottle back to him, and he re-corked and put back to its place.
“Let me try another one,” she said with excitement.
“How about number 12. This is one of my favorites. Christmas morning. Fur tree, scotch tape, wrapping paper, wood burning fire, clove, orange, newspaper, and coffee.”
She inhaled more readily this time.
“Christmas!” she shouted with glee.
Together they sniffed an elementary school classroom, the library, a garbage truck, chocolate chip cookies, and the barber shop.
“How do you do this?” she asked.
“Well, I used to have to do it manually, but now, ” he touched the metal box, “I use the Automated Smell Synthesizer. A.S.S.”
“A.S.S.” he corrected. “Yes, I use this computer to input all of the data, and the A.S.S. produces the scent. Here let me show you. I’ve been working on number 438.”
With a few key strokes, the machine began to hum. It made sucking sounds, dripping sounds, and clinking sounds. On the front of the box there was a little alcove, like the ice and water dispenser of a refrigerator. After a few seconds, a little bit of liquid trickled out into a glass vile and the machine was quiet again.
He lifted it to his nose and sniffed. He nodded in approval.
“Try it, it’s Enrique the janitor at the post office.”
He walked over to his stacks of files and began thumbing through them. “Yes, number 438. Floor polish, toilet cleaner (very minty), Old Spice, garlic, and WD-40.” ”
“Wait, you collect smells of people?” She furrowed her eyebrows and cocked her head to one side.
“Oh yes, many people. Teachers, relatives, people I visited at nursing homes–”
“Me? Did you collect me?”
Once more, Jim thumbed through his files until he came across number 374.
“Yes, Marie Bellman. Number 374.”
“You have a file on me?” She snatched it from his hands, and rifled through the pages. Her face flushed in astonishment.
“Jim! This looks like you’ve been stalking me! Is that what you do? You stalk people to get their smells?”
“Marie, it’s my work, I-”
“Where is it? Where’s my smell?” She began searching the bottles, looking for number 374, but when she got to the place where it should have been, it was empty.
“Where is it, Jim? Where’s my bottle!” she asked, very upset.
Without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a little bottle labelled number 374.
“You keep it in your pocket?! Oh my God! What is wrong with you?!”
She ran to the stairs, climbed part of the way up, and turned back.
“You stay away from me Jim Bronson. I don’t ever want to see you again. If I catch you anywhere close to me I will call the police!”
Then she ran up the stairs and out the front door.
Jim stood alone in his basement and listened to the squeal of Marie’s car tires as she pulled out of the drive. He uncorked the bottle and breathed deeply.