As I sat in front of my broken mess of a lab, my failure. I knew that I would never be anything. My life’s work would amount to nothing. And now it was nothing but broken bits of glass on the a basement floor soaked with fragrance. I would never ever be anything other than “The Sniffer”.
It was third grade at McKinley Elementary school. Mother used to walk me to school every morning. I carried my satchel and a Batman lunchbox. This was a cool autumn morning, and the buzz of a circular saw rang more clearly in the air than in the summer. Mr. Donelly, a man in his seventies who smoked a briarwood pipe, was burning leaves on his curbside as people used to do.
We waited at the crosswalk until the P.E. teacher, Mr. Cleveland, turned a stop sign to the oncoming traffic and motioned us across. We walked across a map of the United States painted on the smooth, concrete slab under the overhang in front of the school where it was a few degrees cooler. Mother kissed me on the forehead. Her kisses always smelled of Maybelline lipstick, stale coffee, Chanel #5, and spearmint gum.
“Good morning, Jim. Let me show you to your new desk,” said Mrs. Johnson, perhaps with a hint of exasperation in her voice. This was the second time she’d moved me.
The school was filled with a plethora of odors, both foul and brilliant. My classroom smelled of crayons, Playdough, pencil shavings, paste, Elmer’s Glue, aging carpet, wood and aluminum, and industrial surface cleaner…and of course, children…their fingers covered with the residue of mucus, the smell of playground sweat, and methane. But there was one child who didn’t smell like that at all. She smelled of honeysuckle, sunshine, Twinkies, and cedar. Her name was Letisha, but we all called her Sissy, and Mrs. Johnson had seated me right behind her.
I had taken every chance that year to stay near her. During story time, I was always sure to sit behind her and quietly sniff her delicious fragrance. At lunch, I sat across from her. I could never look at her, but I could smell her fragrance intermingled with grape jelly and peanut butter and fruit punch flavored Caprisun. Although she could never replace profile #1, she did make being at school bearable. And now was sitting right in front of me. I could smell her all day long.
To my knowledge, she was entirely unaware of my smell collecting, for which I took copious notes in my Batman Trapper Keeper. Batman was the only superhero I could ever respect because he’s the only one with enhanced olfactory powers due to his bat-like characteristics. Nor did anyone else appear to suspect my studies, until today.
None of the other boys would play with me during recess, but I didn’t care. I was not like them, and they knew it. I was different and they despised me for it. I followed Sissy to the line at the tornado slide. She wore a pastel orange jump suit, ruffly socks, and pink Keds. I’d always been fond of ruffly socks. I managed to get right behind her in the line, which was full of dirty smelly boys hitting each other on the arms and using curse words.
I began to breathe her in despite the fouler odors around me. At first, at a distance, but then closer, until I was close enough to take a whiff of her hair – scented with strawberry shampoo. I thought if I could just get a little closer and smell her neck, I could complete my profile of her. I leaned in as close as I dared and drew a deep breath. At that moment, she flinched and swatted me on the nose. She turned around and yelled at me.
“Ewwww! Get away from me!” And she pushed me down to the ground. I can still smell the dirt and grass from where my elbows sunk into the ground. The commotion attracted the group of boys in line in front of her.
“Jim was sniffing me! He’s being creepy!”
As if on cue the boys jumped on me. It was a blur of kicking and hitting and dragging…and cursing. The cursing was worse than anything else. They called me all manner of foul words; words that would haunt my dreams for weeks. Then the metallic smell of blood gushed forth from my nose, and then one of the boys, Jimmy Fletchheart, shouted, “Jim’s a sniffer! He’s the Sniffer.” And the chanting began. The circle of children grew as they shouted, “Sniffer! Sniffer! Sniffer! Sniffer!”
This is the day it all began. There wasn’t a day after that that someone didn’t call me that. A kid would bump into in the hall and sneer at me, “Sniffer”. No one would stand in line with me at the drinking fountain, “Sniffer”. No one would eat lunch at the same table, “Sniffer”.
As the years wore on, the name calling and bullying continued. Even the janitor, who once cleaned up a pile of vomit and asked me if I wanted to take a good sniff. I did everything I could to avoid any interaction with anybody.
The name still rang in my head when I passed McKinley and my old high school on West Main Street. The name that told me that I was a freak and that I’d never be able to break free from my work, my obsession.