Nepenthe

After about a year, though, there was a subtle but noticeable regression. Something nagged the collective mind, and I think it was this: our town’s relationship with Jake was not going to change. Sure it would be interesting to watch him grow up, to try and detect subtle changes in his scent. But what if he grew up to be a dull, unimaginative young man? Even worse, what if his scent was so tied to youth that it vanished during his adolescence? The worst scenario of all, however, went unarticulated in the minds of most: that he would grow into a perfection that matched his odor, that his odor might even mature exquisitely like an aged bourbon. And then he would leave us. Even if we could convince him to attend our modest community college, that would only delay his inevitable departure by one or two years. We knew our town could not contain him. And still one further level of the unfathomable: another city would experience his smell, would proudly claim it as their own, just as some unknown town before ours had.



Then the disaster. Though we at first vilified one man, we came to understand that his crime was this shared fear made manifest. Geoff Mossburg was a seventy-one-year-old retired electrician who had been living in our town all his life. He’d married his high school sweetheart and raised three sons, all of whom had excelled in school and who now had families of their own in other cities. Geoff played golf three days a week and low-stakes poker on Saturdays. He had quit smoking years ago but still enjoyed bottomless pizza and beer night at the VFW. On the morning of the disaster, he was volunteering as a crossing guard near the elementary school. “Just to make sure I get out of bed,” he winkingly told people.

A crowd of students was crossing with Jake, so there was no lack of witnesses. When asked at the trial to describe Mr. Mossburg’s demeanor, Jemina Bowles said, “He looked like he needed to go to the bathroom.” Stop sign raised, his eyes darted over the group of children and landed on Jake. As I wrote earlier, Jake was more than accustomed to his local celebrity, but he told the jury that this look seemed different, “Almost like a dog right before it growls.” Jake quickened his pace once he’d passed warily by the crossing guard. The children heard a clatter as the stop sign fell to the asphalt. Mr. Mossburg caught up to Jake, carried him to Jo Horkin’s front lawn, held him down, and pulled off the boy’s shoes. Jake barely had time to scream before Mr. Mossburg had pocketed his socks and hurried off.

The climate towards Geoff Mossburg on the first day of the trial was noticeably chilly. A crowd gathered outside the courthouse – an old structure that dominates our quaint town square – and yelled insults as the police escorted Mr. Mossburg from and later back to the awaiting squad car. Someone threw what turned out to be a handful of clothespins.

Jake was not present that day in court, but he was brought in on day two to describe the strange attack. The mini-mob was placated by the smell that continued to blossom outside after Jake was lead through the front door of the courthouse. The jury smiled distantly, Judge Millhouse rested his gavel, and Mr. Mossburg struggled to the point of tears not to relapse there in front of everyone. The prosecuting attorney, Janet Sujek, immediately sensed her error – but didn’t seem too upset with herself. The effect was obvious; having the smell there in front of us, cooped up by the old building’s terrible ventilation, made us all very understanding. How could we condemn Mr. Mossburg when all of us were fighting against the same urge? Derrick Beam called himself as a spontaneous witness in Mr. Mossburg’s defense, admitting that, as Jake’s barber, he saved every towel he used to line the boy’s collar before unfurling his bib.

A hasty ruling was arrived at: Mr. Mossburg would quit his volunteer position as a crossing guard and never come within smelling distance of Jake – we called it a “restraining odor” – and the trial quickly turned into more of a town hall meeting in which we all tried to figure out how to best confront the issue. The idea we came up with was that, if an artful enough fabrication could be concocted, the city could administer the unction as a harmless enough substitute for those who, like Mr. Mossburg, required one.

One voice of dissent quieted everyone’s self-congratulation. The man who stood up was Frank Okurowski, our local black sheep. He had lived his whole life in our town, and we had watched him fail to grow out of a mischievousness that had, at the time, been charming because of his youth. Alcohol had led to drugs, and he had lost the job his late father had secured for him in construction when the police raided his ramshackle house on a tip that he was cooking. He’d been in and out of prison, and he could be found most days, bottle-in-bag, at the bus stop near the Books ’n’ More. An addiction to nasal spray had completely destroyed Frank Okurowski’s sense of smell.

He actually looked like he had tried to make himself presentable that day. Come to think of it, none of us had seen him at his usual outpost for at least a month. Maybe he was getting help. No amount of soap and water could remove the lines that hard living had drawn on his face, but his hair was clean and newly clipped. He wore a turtleneck and grey slacks with black dress shoes. Murmurs coursed through the courthouse – but not too loud; we wanted to hear what Frank had to say. His words were memorized.

“People might be tempted not to listen to me because I’ve made so many mistakes in my life. But for just a minute, consider that that makes me an expert in mistake-making. Maybe I’m the most qualified person here to diagnose this huge mistake we’re all taking part in.”

Some people were already done listening, and began to make this known.

“And I’m not alone.” Five individuals flanking Frank Okurowski stood in solidarity. There was Dr. Yonkus, an anesthesiologist, Rabbi Rosenbaum, Fr. John, Driscoll Ammer, a local playwright and renowned debauchee, and Clark Sykes, Jake’s P.E. teacher. We found out later that a seventh was supposed to stand – Claudia Milner, a marriage counselor – but that Jake’s proximity had overwhelmed her resolve.

“Sympathetic I most certainly am,” Okurowski continued, then pointed at Mr. Mossburg, “but this man attacked a boy, and he has committed a crime.”

“Another area of expertise?” Janet Sujek jabbed. Some laughter, some applause.

“Absolutely,” Okurowski nodded. “And as an addict, I know that the only way to gain control of yourself is to remove the temptation.”

The room was sickly silent at the idea’s implications. “And how do you suggest we… remove this temptation?” Judge Millhouse asked the obvious question.

“By asking the Longaways to leave our town permanently,” Clark Sykes answered.

Our town government approved our proposal to bring in an adroit perfumer from New York City. A prim, fashionable, seemingly humorless man, he arrived in a U-Haul loaded with a moon-shaped white desk with four tiered shelves. He and what we later were told was his perfumer’s organ were installed in the Gaslamp Inn, where his heavy chest yielded nearly a hundred corked, amber-colored vials. On each was written, in a spidery hand, the captured scent. Mr. Castel – that was the perfumer’s name – requested to see Jake privately in his chambers, but of course Mrs. Longaway would not allow this, and so Mr. Castel permitted her to accompany Jake under the condition that she thoroughly bathe beforehand without soap or shampoo, and that she wear clothes that likewise had been cleaned without soaps. Mrs. Longaway assured him that she was not currently menstruating. She also agreed to leave several articles of Jake’s clothing in his keeping.

Then, three months of silence. Mr. Castel had his meals delivered to him in his room, and his only other contact with the outside world were couriered packages to or from New York. A cartoon in our local paper showed Mr. Castel in strung-out, romantic isolation, focused intensely on his scale and set of weights; the caption read “Maybe a pinch of salt.” Finally the Gazette released, in a front-page story, the news that Mr. Castel had successfully reproduced Jake’s odor, and would uncork his masterpiece at a gala event to be held in the town square the following week. Everyone was invited. Two days later, though, the Gazette’s printed cancellation of the gala dampened the excitement and planning that had been building since the announcement. Though the story claimed that Mr. Castel had been forced to return to New York due to a nervous breakdown – which might well have been true – we knew that the real reason for the cancellation was that Mr. Castel had tried out the scent on a test group of locals and had met with downright hostility. We knew this because I knew this – I was in the test group.

The smell was ninety-nine percent the same as Jake’s – but instead of that one percent becoming lost in the cologne’s overwhelming success, it seemed to mutiny against the smell, becoming more and more accentuated, until that one percent was all you could smell. That one percent was my high school carpool having bought some cheap cigarillos instead of the cloves he liked to smoke. I asked the others in the test group what that one percent smelled like, and here’s what we agreed on: phoniness, disrespect, vulgarity.