Remembering the Scent of Her Voice

They tell me that the most powerful of the senses in terms of stimulating memories is smell. I believe that’s true, since my hearing went the way of my youth years ago.

And now my memory’s hard of hearing, too.

When even your memory loses its power to hear, let me tell you, you’ve got a problem. Or at least I do.

There are a few reasons I can’t hear anymore. 

One, I’m old. Retired from the news business, the newsPAPER one where everyone read your work product behind their coffee each morning. 

Two, I spent a lot of time listening to music in headphones while I worked. Turned up to 11, as they say. Plus, I spent a lot of time in the paper’s back shops watching — and, I suppose, listening — to the news being rendered onto erstwhile forests between the rollers of great mechanical transcribers of inky truth.

And three, I could never hear very well to begin with. Hence, the aforementioned headphone volume, which now I turn up to 15 or so via Bluetooth and electronic hearing aid magic as it shouts into the semi-useless holes where Bose headphones once howled.

And what does all this info dump have to do with scenting a memory?

Because I can’t remember Nicole’s voice.

I told you my memory’s lost its hearing, too.

Sure, I can sit on a mountain and look down onto a forest that missed out on feeding the news machines back in the Seventies and hear the wind strum the pines and the birds chant their matins in real time through my hearing aids. But even if I couldn’t, I can “hear” the music of Nature on some recording that I pump from my phone through these $4,000 miracles sitting in my ears. So even if I forgot the difference between a tweeting titmouse and a babbling brook, science can make the connection for me.

But recalling the timbre and music I found in the voice of the love of my almost-silent and forgetful life? That I can’t pull from some crusty fold in my gray matter. And I have to. I need to hear her tell my imagination I’ll be okay when that door opens and the light in the next room plays our song and I click my heels (I can hear that now) and say “There’s no place like home.” 

And if home is where the heart is, then my next home will be with Nicole, because that’s where my heart’s been for thirty years.

Right now, when I think of her, I can see her pretty face, feel her warmth breath against my ear. But when she speaks to me, all I can hear is some generic placeholder of human sound. An Alexa or Siri voice that’s nowhere near as pretty as that face or warm as the life she breathed into me. I need that or my way out of this life will be as sad and silent as her grave.

We met on the job, both of us spoken for at the time, but we almost immediately found our voices stimulating some kind of vibration only we could perceive. I would say we were tuned to our own frequency, upon which sentences would abruptly stop somewhere before the next necessary inhalation, but the message would continue and be understood.

“Hey, do you want to…” I’d whisper behind her as she typed away at her desk. 

She’d cut me off and whisper back, “No, but how ‘bout we…”

“Yeah, I like it there. Good i…,”

“I thought you would,” she’d say, smile that smile, and then get up and head back to the shop to check out some galleys for Thursday’s edition.

The print shop is where Nicole told me she was leaving. At first, I didn’t understand, the printers’ smudging her voice like her tears smudged her mascara. She pulled me close and placed her mouth right next to my ear and told me how she had to go, since her husband had been transferred. 

The newspaper had already found her a position, a promotion no less, at their sister publication in the same city where her husband was going. 

Then she kissed me, said, “I’ll talk to you later,” and hustled out to the office. Our city editor made the announcement right after that, pulled out a bottle of sparkling something and everyone toasted to her success. Except me. I stayed in the print shop trying to pull my stomach off the floor.

When I left the shop, she’d already gone. My cubicle-mate pointed to my face and asked what the black stuff was on my cheek. I knew, but I told him it was ink from the shop.

I never heard Nicole’s voice again. Not in person, nor on the phone. I received a bunch of letters, which became emails and then some Christmas and birthday cards and then nothing.

Her obit ran four years ago. No one at the paper by now knew who she was. I didn’t exactly know whose face it was in the photo the company ran with her story. The toll of those quiet years and the onset of my dementia, I guess. She probably wouldn’t recognize me either.

But I have old photos and some sweet selective memories where she’s as near perfect as my imagination chooses to remember. But I don’t have her voice. 

Couple of months ago, I pulled a bottle of bubbly something from the fridge and filled a glass to toast Nicole like I never did the first time she left me behind. And as I watched those bubbles rise and (I assume) fizz and pop at the wine’s surface, the idea came to me. 

The aroma of the wine reminded me of the night she left. And I thought maybe there was something else that might remind me of the sound of her voice.

So I stole my daughter’s Mazda (don’t tell her) and drove out to the old-timey Linotype printshop on Route 7. It’s run by the son of our old shop foreman. I introduced myself and told him I was writing a story about the old days and hoped I might take a few photos of his presses as a bit of inspiration.

He agreed and walked me into his back shop where I stopped cold. 

“You all right, Bud?” he asked with the look of a guy who didn’t need some old reporter dropping dead in his place of business.

“Oh, sure. It’s just that I haven’t smelled something like this, heard that, in a couple of decades.”

“Yeah, that ink smell can get to some folks. I can see how it’s getting to you, too. Let’s grab a couple of pix and get you out of here, Bud.”

“I appreciate it, son. Could you get me a cup of water over there?” I choked out.

So I have those photos and a decent memory of the sound of a roaring press. But every night I can hear Nicole again whenever I pull out and take a deep sniff of the cleaning rag, still full of ink and oil, that I snuck into my pocket while that young fella was at the water cooler.

“I can’t believe you really…”

“Yes, Nicole, if I ever was going to hear your voice again, I had…”

“Okay, Bud. Did you see…?”

“Oh, that is quite a bright…”

“It’ll be all right. Been waiting for…”

“Hoped so.”

After a lot of sputters, stops and no starts, I sat down with no expectations and tackled the prompt of Hearing in Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses. program. Had to use that photo up there, as well as two other. And, so lie me, my Hearing story hinged on the sense of Smell. This is a first-draft hope and a prayer. But it’s a thing where nothing was before.

Imagine a World Without Us, Angel

I suppose you’ve imagined 
a world without you. One of those 
“It’s a Wonderful Life” scenarios 
that so many of us posit 
when the world bashes what 
may actually be our reality.

I’ve done it, too, in those moments 
when midnight’s darkness or tears 
blinded me to the George Bailey-ness 
of such an exercise in self absorption.
I wouldn’t want to live in a world 
without you, even if I didn’t know 
what I was missing without you 
				and there 
		and there 
and here
in the timeline of my life. 

How would you feel if I never 
shined my light or cast my shadow 
across your path? Because it could’ve
happened if I listened to that 
teary darkness’ logical alternative 
to what I thought I was suffering.

And so, my angel, you’ve saved me 
from a world without. 
Without you, without me, without us. 
But we’ve brought each other a world 
with a special light and someone 
to dry our tears when we need to see 
this is such a better place because 
					you’re there, 
I’m here, 
		 and we’re together
to hear our bells when they finally ring.

The Price We Pay for Light Is Shadow

I don’t wish to be dark, since all 
I want from life is to bring you light.
Light to shine like joy upon you and me.
But I know I can’t hand you a ray 
of sunshine, like a celestial flower,
just as you can’t chase away my dark ennui.
And I don’t know if you’d even accept it 
if I offered. Maybe because you know 
what I know about life and light. 
How whenever each has shone upon us, 
neither of them has come cheaply. 
And nothing’s ever come to us without a fight.
So while I don’t want to bring you more darkness, 
we both know shadow’s the price we pay 
for the gift of light from above.
The shadow light casts when something 
or someone stands between us and some 
someday’s bright shining love.
So I will never stand in the way 
of the light you need and deserve. 
Just as I hope you’ll never block mine. 
For that we must stand side by side, 
letting the light have us full, 
and leaving our lives’ shadows behind.

Frozen in Those Four-Alarm Feelings

She asked me what it was like 
to live up there where it 
got Winter early and Spring so late. 
I had to sit for a second to remember. 
Even though remembering’s 
almost all we old guys do.
Mostly what I recalled was the heat 
on my face and the chill on my back, 
like when I would chase the sirens 
and lights to those trailer fires, 
where someone’s whole life, 
and few lives themselves, 
would go up in a smoke so stinking 
it clings to my memory harder 
than it clung to my clothes back then.
But the fires weren’t the recollection 
I was thinking of when she asked me.
No, it was heat of your breath on my face 
and the icy chill of the known unknown 
coursing down my back and how they melted 
together and steamed within me ~ and us ~ 
that one night I’ll never forget. 

In the Simplest Sense

If I was to write you a story, 
I don’t think it’d be very happy, 
because happy’s hard to find, 
like the tilde on this keyboard of mine.
If I tried to write you a poem, 
I don’t believe it’d very pretty,
since the pretty words left home
just after Christmas this year.
If I did write you something, though,
it’d be from a heart blind to what 
you believe isn’t pretty — but is so.
That’s because you’ve touched me 
and I’ve felt you in a way senses cannot.
I hope that’d make you feel happy ~ ~ ~
even if I can’t.

Hi, remember me? The usual struggle for words got worse over the past month or so. Then I sensed I wasn’t being myself in what I was trying to say. So I went as basic as I could, letting my blind heart lead me here, where you’re beautiful and I’m just the me you don’t need to see ~ you just need. Simple.

Where Not Even Seeing’s Believing

I’d expected even a first-year lab geek like Geoff Parmenter would know how to dress in the field. But then I’d been wrong in guessing how modern humans might act since I was a kid. Surely anyone over the age of ten would know enough not to wear brand new white Nike Air Forces on a trip into the sand and basalt crags of the Sonoran Desert. Wouldn’t they?

“Hey, Bronsky, you sure you know where you’re going? I’m pretty sure most of these tracks are headed in the other direction,” Parmenter said from the right seat of our all-terrain. 

They always turn back or don’t come back at all, I thought.

True, though, looking west, the desert horizon draws wheel ruts like a magnet, focuses them to a tiny point in the dusty distance, as if looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. It’s been that way since the 1860s, horses, wagons, marching feet and gold-fever dreams. Or so they tell me. But I wasn’t looking for some Spanish soldier’s wet dream El Dorado. Parmenter and I were searching for a different kind of treasure. Treasure the Conquistadors, gold seekers and commercial mining operators probably would ignore…if we were lucky. More than likely, if they did find it, they’d just destroy it like they destroyed everything else they considered without value.

“Barbarians,” I muttered.

“What’s that you say, Bronsky?” Parmenter said. 

“Hang on,” I replied, and yanked the wheel to the right bumping us out of the mainstream and onto the virgin hard pan and wind-crusted sand toward the alkali fog even further southwest. Neither Arizona nor Mexico actually claimed what hid within. Though some politicians drew an invisible line over that cloud of secrets in 1849 after the War with Mexico. 

It’s just that no one ever told whoever lived in the mountains behind that arid mist. If anyone still did.

“So you really think we’re going to find something out there, dude?”

“Something?” I replied.

“You know what I mean,” Parmenter said, peering at me over  his $200 aviator Ray-Bans.

“You mean El Dorado? Not in the sense some civilian might. But we’re definitely headed in there for archeological, anthropological, don’t-really-know-if-it-exists kind of treasure.”

“Still, it could be gold artifacts, right?”

I’d had to tell him we were looking for such treasure so his family might bankroll my little expedition. 

“If I’m right, and I’m almost positive I am, and if weather, animals, man or time itself hasn’t destroyed this little Anasazi offshoot shrine, you’ll be picking your teeth with some golden something by Friday night,” I kind of lied. “Now pull up your bandana, ‘cause you might choke on what we’re about to drive through.”

I was hoping that might intellectually or physically keep his yap shut for an hour or so as I picked our way over rocks and ruts and arroyos as we began gaining some altitude above the desert floor. I called it a day as soon as the sun started turning everything to gold when it crested the peaks in front of us. Sundown was going to fall on us like an avalanche and I didn’t need a broken axle to end our excursion almost before we started.

The next morning, as I sized up the trail before us, I had to give Parmenter the bad news we’d be hoofing it from here on out.

“That’s it? We drive one day into this hell hole and now I’ve gotta schlep this crap like a damn donkey for who knows how many days?”

His snowy white Nikes had taken on the ochre color of the desert and I could see a slight cut beside the right one’s toe box.

“I told you there’d be some walking,” I said. 

“Yeah, but…”

“Just place your feet in my footprints. I’ll try to keep you safe.” 

“You’d better, Bronsky. My dad paid enough for this stupid jaunt. It’s gotta get me a Masters, the Parmenters some real notoriety and him some kind of golden booty in return for his largess to some bookish Bohunk from Buffalo.”

I figured right then if I killed him just one day’s hike up in these rocks, hidden the body just right, no one would ever find him. And I doubt anyone would actually miss him. From the sound of things, his old man was more intent on owning some golden piece of history — as long as it had value beyond the history. Mr. Parmenter would miss the Hummer more. Nah, it was a nice charitable contribution, a tax write-off for guys like him. 

“Let’s get going before the sun gets too high, Geoff. My research shows two days’ hike to the pit house shrine,” I said over my shoulder. I heard him grunt and curse under the weight of his pack. But I heard the shuffle of those sneakers in the dust, too. Too bad.

The climb was pretty much as I expected, steep and hot, even just after dawn. What I hadn’t really counted on was two days worth of corridors-like arroyos and ravines we had to snake through. There was something odd about them, though. And to my surprise, Parmenter picked up on it.

“These rock walls look a little strange to you, Bronsky? So steep and narrow? Almost like someone dug them.”

“I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Parmenter. Because they’re cut like this, we get shade for longer in the day. You just keep hitting those walls with that spray paint when we make a turn. One thing I don’t want is to get lost in this maze,” I said.

What I didn’t say — out loud — was “with you.” For a guy who was not in the best of shape for a trek like this, Parmenter could talk and complain and prattle non-stop. If I had to spend more than a week with this guy, one of us was going to have to die. And, by then, I didn’t care which of us.

We camped by a small stream that night. The stream was a good sign. It meant we were near either a water source or we’d stumbled into one of these proto-Hohokam canals for which their coming generations would be noted. Either way, I knew we were getting close.

“What was that?” Parmenter said as he shifted to look up trail. 

“Same stuff we’ve been listening to for the past three nights, Geoff. The demise of some rodent by a snake. The demise of a snake by a coyote. Or the demise of a coyote by a javelina or mountain cat.”

“That answer doesn’t exactly put me at ease, Bronsky. I thought I saw something. Where’s your gun?”

I was afraid he’d ask me that.

“The animals are more afraid of us and our fire than we are of them.”

“Speak for yourself, Bwana Bronsky. I’d sleep a ton easier, if at all, if I had that cowboy gun of yours on my hip,” Parmenter said. He was serious.

“One, no freaking way, Sundance. Two, my hiking gun, my registration and license. Three, I don’t need you beside me, or worse yet behind me, with a weapon you have no idea how to use, feeling all jumpy because some rabbit flipped over a rock. I don’t like guns. And a pistol is designed really for one thing. Besides, a miss at a target in these narrow walls could ricochet four or five times in God knows which directions before the bullet came to rest. So, about my ‘cowboy gun?’ Yeah…no.”

“Well at least take it out of your pack. Just in case. I really am worried now. That sound was different.”

“Different how?”

“Well, taller,” Parmenter said with a straight face.

“The sound you heard and the shadow you say you saw in this desolate place, where no one has lived for hundreds of years, sounded ‘taller,’ you say.”

“Yeah. Like when you were a kid and you heard a sound outside your room and you didn’t worry if it was shorter, ‘cause you knew it was your sister. But if it was taller it might be your father and if he stopped by your door…”

“Whoa, Geoffrey. We might be venturing into the arroyo of too much information here. No offense, but I think we’d be better off without a flood of emotional history coming downstream.” I felt kinda sorry for the goof now. This bit of drama punctuated the unspoken reason he was so hot to trot about finding something on our expedition. Dude was a walking text of Abnormal Psych 303. I knew he had daddy issues, but I never realized they were Daddy Issues.

“I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise,” I said. And I mostly meant it.

The next day I knew we were close. Parmenter was right. These corridors were hand-cut, and probably by the priests who hid out up here from the Franciscan padres who were sent to civilize a civilization that was twice as old as Spain’s. Okay, they were there to erase it and replace it with their brand of Catholicism and maybe snag a bit of El Dorado for their trouble.

By mid-afternoon, we were dragging. I knew I was getting pretty silly with the heat and Parmenter had even shut up. So I was about to call for our last break before our final leg of the day, when I took a left at a T in the trail and turned to tell Parmenter to mark an arrow on the wall to our right.

I never saw the pit I fell into. I knew I was hurt, but I didn’t think too badly. I’d dropped into one of the pit homes of the ancient priests we had come to find. 

“Jesus, are you all right, Bronsky?” Parmenter called down from the edge of the pit. 

“Yeah, knee hurts a little and I hit my head on this…holy mother of…”

“What? What do you see down there?”

“Beauty, man. True beauty,” I replied.

Okay, so I already was zoomy from lack of water and the heat. And I might have been knocked wonky from landing on my head after my knee gave. But right there in front of me I could see as pristine a piece of Hohokam art as any this side of the gift shop at the Arizona Museum of Natural history. And those were molded in Bangladesh.

“What the hell do you see?”

I crawled over to human-sized niche horizontally cut into the stone wall of the pit. It looked like it was a place for someone to sleep and I wondered who it was slept there four or five hundred years ago. 

And then I saw the dried meat and fresh root vegetables and began wondering who was still sleeping there.

“Oh man, I think I really slammed my head.”

“Tell me what you see, Bronsky! Artifacts? Any gold?”

I hadn’t even noticed the glints the nearly vertical sun-ray spotlight bounced from two shining human-shaped statuettes, as well as a plate and some kind of blade. All I could focus on was the white four-legged figure with black stripes. Some might think it a zebra. But I knew it was probably some prehistoric horse. Or the legend of one.

“Can you climb out of there?” Parmenter asked.

“No, it’s too deep and the walls a nearly vertical. Any footholds are cut too low to climb up very far. Besides, I really bunged up my knee.”

“Can you toss up the gold?”

He wasn’t kidding. 

“I mean it, Bronsky. Throw the good stuff up here and then I’ll find something to help you out,” Parementer said, like he was ordering some posh meal at The Parish in Tucson on his daddy’s Amex Black.

There really was no other way. So I tossed up the two little golden guys, the plate and the knife. No way would I even touch that little white equine answered prayer. Took a photo of it with my phone, though. All it was good for with no service out here.

As I was snapping a couple more shots of the contents of the niche, I yelled up from the pit, “C’mon, Parmenter, fun’s fun. Get me out of here.”

“What? So you can grab all the glory and short-change me of my big-time degree, my notoriety and put all this shiny stuff and whatever else I can find here in some museum? Nah, this is where we part company, Bronsky. Thanks for the ride.”

That’s when I saw the shadow run across the wall. I couldn’t tell what it was for sure. It had a head like a horse, but the arms of a man. What it also had was Parmenter. He screamed, then I heard gunshots. The creep must have stolen my gun in the night.

Maybe it was only one gunshot that missed or went through the shadow and echoed around the walls. Then I felt more pain in my leg and everything went black.

When I woke up I was sitting against the wall next to the pit. My leg had a bandage on it covering a scratch the bullet cut into me from Parmenter’s (errant?) shot. I saw Parmenter lying against the wall opposite me. He wore a bandage, too, only on his hand.

On the edge of the pit I saw the golden artifacts had been returned to their rightful place. Only now the plate had something resting on it. Looked like more dried meat.

I limped over to Parmenter to check his hand. Maybe he got nicked on a shot I didn’t hear. That’s when I noticed what was under his bandage. Or wasn’t. Four fingertips off his right hand. I didn’t need to get a closer look at that plate. Or the stained blade lying next to it. I didn’t need to see any of that gold again. Neither did Geoff Parmenter.

It took us four days to get back to the truck. Four weeks to heal up. And now it’s been four years since I’ve seen Parmenter, who the doctors think went crazy from the heat. I mean, c’mon. Who’d believe he was attacked by a white headed horse man that lived in the shadows out there in desert mountains he couldn’t remember how to get to?

He wasn’t a very good student either. He never saw the literature about how some Hohokam priests wore headdresses like striped horses in their secret rites. He never saw that white equine statuette, either.

You know, like this one right here. Wanna see?

Been a while since I’ve been able to attempt writing a short story. What’s always helped me, though is Canadian writer and teacher’s Six Weeks, Six Sense challenge. Week 1 was Sight. I don’t think I hit the target like I used to. Also, it took three days to do what used to take and afternoon. But here’s the first draft of this week’s effort.

We’re Really Real

Why do we look to horoscopes, 
psychics and dreams, 
coincidences, nature and 
subconscious schemes
to help us understand that which
we think we don’t know?
When within these trees, actually, 
a forest does grow.

So let’s not worry about 
offending the past.
At our age, there’s just too much,
the past is so vast.
And the future? Well, we know
that’s never a sure thing.
If past is prologue, nobody knows 
what tomorrow will bring.

Yeah, I’m scared, too, but see
how short is existence,
how long is regret, and how
strong this resistance
to take it head on, this long
put off conclusion.
Together, we’re real. It’s those
excuses that’re delusion