Nepenthe

Everyone in town did eventually get to sample Mr. Castel’s creation. A bigwig in the New York perfume business purchased the recipe at an exorbitant price and marketed it under the name Nepenthe. A teenage pop star attached his name to the label. Everyone’s initial reaction was outrage that Jake had been commodified, that our town’s proud secret had been suddenly disseminated worldwide. But we laughed off our outrage when we realized that the fragrance was an impostor, that our secret was safe. Some speculated, however, that the whole test group and the release of Nepenthe was a complicated ruse. Mr. Castel’s senses were too attuned, his perfumer’s organ too formidable, to have failed at his task. They hypothesized that the real Nepenthe was a secret being kept by the government for the purpose of subduing large groups of agitators, or possibly that the bigwig was selling it at an extreme price to only the millionaires who could afford the real thing.

Jake’s family moved out of our town under the cover of a cool autumn night – for of course that is how this story was always going to end. The next morning, I leaned out my bedroom window to clip the out-of-control ivy that risked twining its destructive way into the window’s mechanisms (it grew at an amazing pace overnight, latching onto my newly painted trim with alien tendrils), and I was struck by an absence. Like everyone in our town, what I noticed was a lack of noticing. People poured into the streets, morning cup of coffee in hand, to discuss why we all felt that this day was going to be different than the ones that came before it. Many of us skipped work.

News came down to us that there was a for-sale sign in front of the Longaway’s house. We were all plunged into the tension of a mutual agony that we all knew had to remain private. We had lost Jake Longaway because we had not been able to control ourselves. A bidding war ensued, and by noon the house had sold for three times its value to the richest man in town, Avery Capaldi. By two o’clock, a security force was in place guarding the property. By the end of the week, an iron gate had been thrown up around the house. By November, an inflatable dome. Avery had been a very social man, and could be found most nights at O’Fallons, but from that day forward he secluded himself in the Longaway house, and all claims to having seen him around town seemed desperate and unlikely.

Jake’s scent was not the only absence that vexed our senses. With him gone, we all realized how bland we had allowed our town to become. It was completely scoured of smells, of personality, of flavor. Some even panicked, thinking that we had all lost our senses of smell. A suggestion from one of Jake’s classmates sent many of us to the nearest gas station, where we slopped the rainbow liquid on the pavement and breathed deeply of an odor both brand new and distantly familiar. We uncovered other smells as well: at the neglected arboretum’s Compass Rose, at a bakery that had managed to stay open on Main Street, in the cluttered drawers where we tossed the detritus of school supplies. I raked my front yard and burned the leaves.

People dealt with the pain of Jake’s departure in their own ways. A week after the Longaway’s flight, our town experienced its first suicide in over fifteen years when the six-foot-four center on the high school basketball team, Ben Zale, hanged himself. As he did not leave a suicide note, we couldn’t prove that his death had anything to do with Jake, and we were left to attribute it to the teenage angst felt most acutely by those who have the least reason to feel it.

Some looked for more constructive answers. What started out as clandestine self-help groups quickly mobilized into quasi-religions. The Apologists believed that Jake would one day return to the town and reward them for their faith. They held daily meditation sessions. They continued to purge their life of, not just odors, but of tastes, textures, and music. They sabotaged our paper mill. They looted any stores that sold Nepenthe and even attacked residents who cloaked themselves in what they called “The False Idol.” A splinter sect of the Apologists, the Devotees, believed they needed to “go out into the world” to search for Jake Longaway. They had our perfumer, Mr. Castel, working for them from New York City, reporting the sales of perfume and cologne worldwide. Any time a precipitous plummet occurred, the Devotees would hurry to the destination. “But most of all,” one Devotee told me, hoping to convince me that their faith was grounded in more than just consumer trends, “we follow our noses. The nose knows.” That was their mantra. Others, energized by an evangelized Frank Okurowski, used the Devotees’ continued failure to argue that the Longaways had not been flesh-and-blood humans at all, that they existed in the realm of the supernatural. A final group – much more shadowy and nebulous – had only one goal: to locate the real Nepenthe fragrance withheld from us by Mr. Castel.

Most of us, however, retreated silently into our daily routines, buoyed by the new wealth of local odors we began to rediscover. But sometimes when the wind kicks up – or when it dies down completely – we swear we catch a whiff of Jake Longaway, possibly borne off a tree he climbed with friends, or a glove he left beneath a movie theater seat. Or maybe Nepenthe has begun to fool our forgetful noses. Either way, we breathe deeply and remember. And momentarily we forgive ourselves – for everything.

Joe Sacksteder would never have submitted this story if he’d thought somebody would publish it. He has recently made the same mistake with Rio Grande Review, Big Muddy, Midwestern Gothic, Mississippi Review, and Hawaii Review. He would love for you to check out his Werner Herzog sound poems on Sleeping Fish, The Collagist, textsound, and Queen Vic Knives. He teaches at Eastern Michigan University.