You Smell of Smoke


It’s snowing out. A few weeks before Christmas Day. You’re shopping for presents. A scarf, red like something burning to embers, a gift for someone you love. You feel the fabric on your fingers, slide it along your palm. You need to wash your hands. It’s not cashmere, but it’s soft. You know about softness. And firmness. You know a firm hand, as the saying goes. Momma had a firm hand. Which doesn’t matter anymore because momma’s been dead as shit for who knows how long. Can’t kiss momma anymore. ‘Do you need help?’ asks a friendly voice. You start and turn. A girl in a red work-shirt. She works here. She sees the scarf in your hand. ‘I have that same scarf,’ she says. ‘Really warm.’ You nod, gripping the scarf in clenched fists. She’s a young girl. You think you’re looking at her for too long, not in her eyes, other places. You wonder if she jogs. How fast she runs if she runs. ‘Gift for my mom,’ you tell the girl. Maybe this is what is happening. Maybe this is where you are. Maybe not.

Another possibility: You’re sitting in your car, your truck, whatever it is you drive, in a parking lot overlooking an airport. Planes come from the horizon. There you are, smelling of secrets, smelling of flames, watching the moving lights in the night sky. Your t-shirt has been cleaner. Should be white, but it’s not. It’s yellowing. Red on it. Brown, probably dirt. Smells, too. Smells like you. Like your secrets and smoke. Scratches on your arms. ‘I got a new cat,’ you don’t say out loud. You’ll need to start saying it. Here comes another plane. Red lights on the wings flash. Lights on the runway are steady and yellow and orange. You realize your windows are up, so you roll them down. The whole car or truck must smell like you. Maybe not. Maybe so. Maybe this isn’t where you are. So, where are you?

Another possibility. Another place you are: With your lips, you kiss the heads of your children, they sleep, tucked sweetly, they don’t dream of such horrible things. You know of horrible things. You smell of different things. You smell like red would smell. You have decorated the house this year. Christmas lights line your home, inside and out. Lots of red lights, like ones on top of buildings, the ones that warn planes if they’re too low, too close. You know how you smell. Deep, like woody smoke. You hear your wife’s footsteps downstairs. She’s filling the kids’ Christmas stockings. You join her in the parlor, helping fill the stockings with candy. A Hershey bar in each. The Christmas tree glows around your wife. It halos her. She puts her arms around your neck, you kiss your wife. This is normal. You like that. You like the idea of being normal. She rests her head on your shoulder. ‘Do you smell burning?’ she asks. Maybe this is where you are. Maybe. It’s possible. Maybe not.

Because there is another possibility. There are possibilities. Sit tight. In your car or truck: You barely have money to fill the gas tank. You do odd jobs in odd cities, odd towns, strange, little hamlets. Places that smell like pink trees in summer and woodstoves in winter. You wander the aisles of a convenience store, not much you can afford to indulge in in here. You just need a gallon of water to live. You finger the candy bars at the register. You love sugar. You love how chocolate smells. You can smell your shirt and your pants and shoes. You smell like secrets. The store clerk smells burning. ‘Smells like a brush fire,’ she chirps. You glance up from the candy bars. You make a noise of distracted concurrence. Your fingers decide on a Hershey bar. Your fingernails are dirty. You notice their filth and you’ll wash your hands when you get a chance. Place the gallon of water and Hershey bar on the counter. The Hershey bar is the right choice. ‘It’s normal,’ you tell the clerk. Her breasts breathe under a red knit-sweater. You don’t know what your brain means by breathe. The word heave comes to mind. Her breasts heave. You look at her face. She’s older than the jogger. Lines linger beneath her eyes that tell of years wasted on men poorer than you. The clerk is too old for love. It’ll never happen. How depressing. This is it for her. Night shift at a shit store. She is looking at you, waiting. ‘What?’ you ask, and there’s that aggression. It’s always been like fire. You smell like black would smell. You smell like tunnels of bones. It is a lightless smell. There is a wind there and it smells like the bone dust it carries. You smell mostly of smoke. There is dried grass imbedded in the soles of your shoes. You have scratches on your arms that are red lines thick as nails. When the time is right, you’ll tell the clerk that you bought a new cat and the new cat has an impressive temper. ‘What’s normal?’ asks the middle-aged, loveless – ultimately useless – clerk. You tracked dirt into the store. The store smells like dirt. You pull coins from your pocket, counting out the exact amount owed for the water and candy bar. Your fingers push the coins toward the clerk. You realize she has red hair. ‘Like your sweater,’ you say, smiling. The lipstick she wears is red. You notice that. ‘Your lips, too,’ you say, not smiling, because you’re watching her lips and you’re imagining them on your body. She’s older than the jogger, but your momma used to say, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ and then she’d whack you on the head and later make you kiss her thighs. Momma was a real sick fuck. Momma wore a lot of red like this clerk, same red lipstick. You’re thinking that you’d kiss the clerk’s thighs, she wouldn’t have to force you. You’d kiss them raw and red. You don’t want to think about your momma anymore, on account of her being a ‘real sick fuck,’ as you say. That, and her being dead as shit for who cares how long. Your dirty fingernails, the clerk probably saw them. She saw scratches on your arms. When the time comes, you’ll say, ‘I have a new cat.’ She smells the red on you. She smells the smoke. You pull your hands off of the counter and grab your water and candy, holding them by your sides. ‘Sorry bout the dirt,’ you apologize for the mess you tracked in. The clerk says, ‘Eh, not a problem. I got nothin to do round here most nights.’ She steps from behind the counter with a broom. She sweeps the dirt. Her pants clutch at her thighs. You exit, looking back into the store every few feet on the way to your car or truck. The clerk’s body bends when she sweeps. Her pants tighten, her sweater does the same. She is older than the jogger and she smelled like Christmas peppermint, a little like cigarettes. The jogger smelled like sweat and life. You smell like red flames, you smell like smoke. In the car or truck, you unwrap the Hershey bar and in your fingers you feel the softness of the chocolate. Your mouth fills with candy and your breath smells like chocolate. Earlier, you kissed the jogger. Since then, your mouth has smelled like her sweat and her adrenaline. You welcome the chocolate. Normal. A Hershey bar is normal. That’s what you had said to the clerk. You wanted to tell her that a Hershey bar is normal and that is what made you choose it over the other candy bars. You want to be like a Hershey bar. You want to smell like what normal would smell like and you want your breathe to smell like chocolate. All of your clothes smell like smoke, though. The jogger scratched your arms. The jogger smells like smoke and black and red and wind and pink, summer trees. It’s a possibility. Maybe and maybe not.

You’re in this tunnel of bones. That’s one place you and I both know you are. It always smells of bone here. The wind is heavy and direct and you sit on the floor when your legs are tired. And the scattering of fragmented skulls is sharp under you. You can’t run from this place. There is no exit and you never entered. No matter where you are, at least we know you’re always here, as well.


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