Nepenthe

A Short Story by Joe Sacksteder

It wasn’t that he smelled different to each person. Rather, there were simply no known odors with which to compare Jake Longaway, leaving each person who came in contact with him to grasp for some familiarity that never came close to reality. I brainstormed on legal pads and designed elaborate spreadsheets to try and unravel each nuance. Eventually I landed on this: to me he smelled like the air rushing through my high school carpool’s slivered windows on a brisk autumn morning.

But then, in the grocery store checkout or the mall foodcourt, he was there – or had just walked away. Either way, the actual smell laughed at the comparative destitution of my description.

I conducted a series of impromptu interviews with my fellow locals, asking them to describe the boy’s smell. Some were uncomfortable discussing the matter, and several had the nerve to claim that they did not know the boy, or – even worse – that they had not noticed anything unique about his odor. A few of these naysayers even treated me like I was some kind of creep for asking the question, but they were small in number next to those who knew exactly what I was talking about and were immediately able to produce answers like: “All my Halloween candy mixed together,” and “Hot apple cider at a football game,” or “The hologram sticker inside a pack of baseball cards.” Although none of the smells seemed to have anything to do with one another, I did notice that they all invoked nostalgia. Further examination would often prove that seemingly unrelated descriptions were also tied to childhood. For example, I have written here that Dawn Van Persie compared Jake’s smell to “A tent you’ve left too long in its bag and are now sleeping in… except good.” When I asked her when was the last time she’d been camping, she replied, “Oh, not for thirty years.”



The Longaways moved to our town during a particularly cool August that gave way to a balmy September. They chose a house in the foothills outside of town, a house that had been on the market for half a decade due to the fact that it bordered a cattle ranch.

Just as Jake’s smell was remarkable, so was he plain in every other regard. His hair was dishwater brown, ditto his eyes. Freckles lightly peppered his face. He was of average height for his age, average weight, average intelligence.

We were never sure what exactly Mr. and Mrs. Longaway did for a living. Something with computers, they claimed, though we suspected they were independently wealthy. Dealing with their son’s condition was probably a full-time job in itself.

This whole ordeal might have been averted if they had been stricter. Many parents, seeing the effect their son had on the general public, might have locked him in the turret, so to speak, or at least homeschooled him. But Mr. and Mrs. Longaway wanted their son to grow up normal, and they had a sense of rightness with the world that was all the more infuriating in that they had given birth to proof of the contrary. It’s true that they tried to suppress his odor. They bathed him in every cologne and odor neutralizer they could find. They draped him in heavy wool. They even tried tomato sauce.

And they were not without rules regarding how their son dealt with his uniqueness. They made it clear to Jake’s teachers that he was not to smell himself in public, and they asked to be notified if he was caught enjoying his fame a little too much. For it was not a self-deception on our town’s part that we noticed Jake had developed a sort of proud strut, as if his odor was a plumage he was wont to unfurl. They could not entirely police these tendencies, of course; when they entered his bedroom to wake him up in the morning, they inevitably found him fully under the covers, curled into fetal position, like he was trying to hoard all of his smell for himself.

Nor did they allow Jake to participate in sports, this after a soccer game in which the other boys quickly stopped chasing the ball around the field and started chasing Jake. It was a new variation on the popular sport, and soon the referees, flaggers, and parents joined in. Any exertion on Jake’s part, we learned, intensified the scent.

On Valentine’s Day at Jake’s elementary school, he, like everyone, brought in a decorated shoebox with a slot cut in the lid. Unlike the other boys, his box was so full by the end of the giving session that the lid would no longer stay on the box without hands holding it down. Sweet-smelling cards had been popular the previous year, and local stores had stocked up on them only to find that nobody wanted them this time around. Most of the girls insisted on making their own cards that year, laboring for hours in hopes to come across as attentive but not needy, mature but not bland.

This incident was only one in a series of indications that our town was attempting to purge itself of all odors aside from that of Jake Longaway. The perfumer we brought in later confirmed a baffling consumer trend that had been noticed as far away as New York City. It was not unusual, he said, for sales of perfume and cologne to rise and fall based on the popularity of whatever celebrity attached his or her name to the label. But for an entire town to suddenly stop buying these products entirely… Air fresheners, potpourri, and even scented toiletries grew stale on the shelves of grocery stores. The gardening culture of our town – which had several times been featured in national publications – cut back on flowering plants in favor of tall grasses, ivies, and succulents. We didn’t want to be distracted from the memory of our last whiff of Jake Longaway. Other smells were embarrassed when they came in close proximity to Jake. Their artificiality and other shortcomings betrayed their gaudiness in his presence. If you couldn’t smell Jake, it was better to smell nothing.

Animals were unaffected by Jake’s smell. Cats were particularly disinterested. Though the odor from the Longaway’s house mitigated the smell of the ranch next door, the cows themselves acted neither grateful nor perturbed. Jake did not attract bees or repel mosquitos.

Jake’s first year here was a good one for all of us. The ghost town of our river district bustled with hat-tipping and flag-waving. Previously floundering students started outshining their reputations. Businesses boomed – except the perfume counter at Begley’s, of course. Our high school, which had never amounted to much athletically, had a stellar year, with boys taking first, second, and third at wrestling states, and the girls track team breaking several records. Jake did not have his own float at the Fourth of July parade – but he should have.