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.

Cutting



Do you still bleed when 
the blade crosses your heart? 
Or have you ceased running, 
like a freshet lying near-lifeless 
waiting for the just right rain 
that might never come?
Cut me again, see how I’ve given up 
pumping the warm, red metaphor,
this life led without the touch
I always thought I needed. 
Yet here I am once more, 
carving for you another arroyo 
like so many I’ve inscribed during 
my days in this desert. 
I once cut the dust with blood 
from a full heart unscarred. 
Now all I’ve left is tears.

Being Human In the Headlights



Wednesday morning, the big doe stepped 
from the brush girding the stand of pines 
on the north side of the yard. 
She was a majestic dream of a deer. 
Grandest female I’ve ever seen, even hiding 
her beauty beneath that late autumn coat. 
Idling halfway across the yard, she stopped, 
brown eyes looking into mine as I froze 
in the kitchen window. This dull grey human 
in the headlights. I broke the connection, 
blinking loud enough I spooked her.

Who am I kidding? She stopped to spook me.
How she knew I was intently eyeballing her 
is probably the same superpower you have 
when I stare at you, even standing there
in my imagination. You just know.

So, just like that, soon as she knew 
I’d been whipped, she trotted 
the rest of the way into the southside shadows, 
disappearing with a shake of her tail 
and three four-beat cloppities of her hooves. 
And now you’re both shrouded in my forest, 
your own stand of memory within me. 
I hope you’ll come back around and see me, 
even in your dun autumn coat,
still shining as grand as you really are.
I promise this time I won’t blink.

Brava



Who would hear it, if I was to fall 
now that no one listens anymore? 
Would you feel the air rush past my ears 
as I drop on my way to the cold, hard floor, 
where my last breath will be cruelly knocked 
from my chest with a whoosh or a rasp?
Would my life playing on the screen in your mind 
in nano-second episodes make you gasp? 
Might your attention leave the theater after 
the .002-second scene of the third act 
because even my gun, the one from Act One,  
going off in my head couldn't make you react?
Or perhaps you’d wait stage-left to see 
if my final thought was of you alone,
as in the overture and between the lines 
I’ve written, recited and probably blown.
Until the curtain falls and in the wings I'll wait 
for you to make your final bow and adieu
and join me there because some writer never 
amended his script to ever let me join you.

Courageux compagnons



So they told me I was booked,
but I never bought a ticket.
Destination? I haven’t looked,
I mean why bother? Frick it.
It’s one-way. At least that I know,
no round-trips this millennium.
Then I heard voices call, “Hey Joe!”
T’was a flock with angels tending ‘em.
Now I may not be that thrilled how
so much of my life’s played out,
but I did meet you, then “POW,”
agreed with what life’s about.
Some times we’ve traveled together,
but didn’t even know it.
Side by side, the trips were better,
if we checked our baggage to stow it.
I’d love to ride with you, you see,
if you’d have me as companion.
Such adventurers we would be,
wise Constance and rube D’Artagnan.
But I’m now kept in The Bastille,
my only escape with that doomed flock.
Death of body or soul quite real,
Hobson’s Choice and I’m on the clock.
I choose not that trip, don’t fret,
though staying’s thousand cuts kill, too.
I don’t wish to stay or go just yet,
unless it’s leaving here with you.

Loser of the 26-Mile Dash



I know my time here's short
though could go on for years.
Don't want to be the sort
always running from smiles to tears.
A marathon without pacing,
the twenty-six-mile dash,
my life's been about chasing
some dream one gone in a flash.
And that’s why just today
I finally took a rest.
Here beneath this duvet,
lying warm upon my chest.
Then from the corner of my eye,
even closed to any sight,
I saw that dream run by
and sleep again lost the fight.
So I rose and wrote, you see,
instead of lying there in bed.
The race won't end for me
until one day when I’m dead.
Don’t gasp or weep or scream,
it’s all okay, my friend.
I’ll become star of a new dream,
one I pray with my dreamed-for end.

Like the Loons on Oven Lake

Ben reflected on the flames licking from six chunks of maple he’d split that morning and pulled from the truck bed that evening. If he looked to his right, he may have noticed how Lissa’s brown eyes reflected the flames, too, only doubled. 

He just stared at the fire and sighed over his disabled truck, stuck there just off the old Adirondack logging road near Oven Lake. A less practical guy might think it looked like it was kneeling there in the brush, its headlight eyes peering into the dark like it was searching for something. 

But Ben was anything but impractical. Lissa told her sister that Ben had one direction – forward — and two speeds – fast and stop. She’d almost learned to accept him missing the right and left of things, like how Lissa’s heart beat twice as hard since her accident.

“I doubt you planned getting us stuck in such a mess. Too out-of-the-blue, even for you. Too many moving parts,” he said.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. But now that it has, I’m kinda glad it did. You know, we haven’t cuddled like this since…”

“Are you cold?” Ben said.

“Nope. I’ve got you and this fire to keep me warm,” Lissa said.

She kissed his cheek not facing the fire and noticed how it felt almost as cold hers was hot. She pressed her cheek against his. 

“So what are we going to do?” he said. “Why can’t you make a call?” Lissa still didn’t understood Ben’s refusal to carry a cell phone. How he said he felt uncomfortable being tailed by some invisible overseer. Maybe, she mused, like an electronic conscience. But that was Ben.

“Tomorrow morning we can walk out to where I have coverage. For now, I just want to snuggle under this blanket, the fire crackling, moon smiling down, the loons looning by the lake.”

Ben broke her cheek-to-cheek link and stared into her face glowing in the firelight. 

“Looning?”

“Sure, like how they’re being in the moment and dealing with things as they come.”

“Like large rocks hidden in the brush?” he said.

“Like nature revealing itself in its own time and its own way.”

“Like broken axles on an F-150 loaded with firewood and other unexpected…”

“You said you thought I’d be okay. And is it really so bad?”

“Hell, yeah, you need to be careful.”

“I thought I was. But I guess I was looning.”

“In the moment, eh?”

“Yes. You know how when things are too heavy and the momentum builds and you just can’t stop in time and…stuff happens. Right?” she said.

“Yeah. But look what your being in the moment got us. So when are you gonna…”

“Call? Tomorrow, soon as I can. Tomorrow.”

“Jesus! Wish you were more careful,” Ben said.

“Me, too.” Lissa said. “I’ll fix it all tomorrow.”

“Get some sleep, will ya?”

But Lissa’s stinging eyes already were closed tight as the wind shifted away toward the lake, carrying away the fire’s smoke with it. But not thoughts of the loons on Oven Lake and the accidents that got her there.

Here’s a double-sized version of my 250-word super-short story I drafted for Siobhan Muir’s weekly Thursday Threads feature. I had to use the phrase “you need to be careful” in it. This story started in one direction and then got Hemingway’d in an entirely different one.

Like My Words Touch Your Heart



When I’m done here, perhaps I'll have touched you,
and, in turn, you might reach out to touch me.
I haven’t given nor received it much, too,
not in a warm to warm sense and such, see.

Is it only with words that we connect?
No, we sense our feelings from a distance.
Words’ warmth a thermometer can’t detect,
not like skin might with skin in this instance.

But the human touch is something we’ve lost,
for so long, both giving and receiving.
Perhaps, to you my embrace feels like frost,
but we can’t see, since feeling’s believing.

Or I guess we could go on just as we are,
comfortably sharing our affection,
with my hands on these keys and this space bar,
yours touching glass and your own reflection.

So this poem’s done, hope you felt it, too, 
and thus in its own way it did its part.
It’s not enough, but the best I can do,
until we touch like my words touch your heart.

I Really Want to Know



With the sun so high and hot, the only shadows 
lie directly beneath the trees. 
The little buildings and addresses sit there 
in shades of golden brown or sugar white 
like baked goods fresh from the oven. 
But they’re not.

A few are fresh, all proofed and kneaded by 
same-named bakers, but most just sit there growing 
stale and lonely, even among all the neighbors 
left, right, front and back, we never knew.
Nobody peers over the walls and says, “How ya doin’?” 
‘Cause everybody knows.

Over there, a visitor sits on a folding chair in the bare, 
baking sun, his hands clasped, leaning forward, his head 
dripping, his cheeks even more. I see his lips moving, 
like the old Italian ladies’ do as they click through 
their rosaries, wishing for something they don’t want to 
believe'll never happen.

And I wonder what he’s saying and I wonder to whom.
Wife, mother? Sister, brother? Son, daughter, maybe his lover?
For a moment, I want to step through this quiet neighborhood, 
just to walk by and see who he’s visiting, maybe hear 
his side of the conversation. But then I remember 
why I came here.

So I pick my way through the yards, not wishing to disturb them 
as I might that quiet man. And I stop by your place, ignoring 
your neighbor. I look down and say, “Hi, Mom. How ya doin’?” 
‘Cause I figure here, as the cars and trucks roll by,  
where nearly no one talks, except the man and me, 
I really want to know.

Another If Only



I awakened again 
before I was ready, 
wondering why I never was so. 
It was five-something and 
I heard a tune playing 
over and over, though 
there wasn’t a sound in the room 
except that shut-eyed sigh.
The blackout curtains held back 
morning over the East's ash and pine.
But I couldn’t black out again
as I began pining over the ashes
of those lost years, mourning 
the missing lives we didn’t lead. 
If only I’d listened closer 
to the songs we shared, 
would’ve shared, could’ve…
I should’ve awakened, 
known when you sighed, 
you were ready.
If only…