Smell (a short short story)
He could smell the disappointment on her deeply exhaled breath. He couldn’t recall ever smelling such a thing before. It smelled of old copper pennies that had once been wet and now were dried with a green crust around the edges. It reeked of fruit salad with little oranges and marshmallows left out on the counter in the summer heat, gone foamy now and strangely textured. It held a hint of wet dog although that smell was almost delightful in comparison to the rest.
How could he not pull her closer? He had to hug her to his chest tightly; he had to deflect the smell that made his stomach twist and bile rise. He meant his embrace to be comforting he really did but his deeper and more primary objective was not to vomit from the knowledge that he had let her down again, so bitterly this time that it was literally oozing out of her cells.
He felt her silent tears seeping through his T-shirt. They missed with the dirt from his field work and when she pulled away left patterns of mud on her aging cheeks. The questions would start any second now and he was aware of his breath becoming paralyzed in his chest from the anticipation.
“Why Tank? Why again? Why do you keep on with this?” Her voice fluttered and creaked like trapped crows in the back of her throat. She sounded as if she hadn’t spoken for a thousand years.
“I don’t know Belle. I don’t. It just happens and I can’t figure out why. I’ve thought on it plenty but I don’t have no answers.” His voice twisted around the truth, snake like and silent. Whispering and sliding around the edges of what he could never say to her.
He loved her no doubt but he could not stay faithful to his vows. He was a split person. One side of him wanted to be upright and honest and even God fearing but was forever warring with the side that could not bear the pressure of her love and therefore avoided it with women he couldn’t care less about how they saw him.
Hers was a steadfast, loyal love and he knew in his bones that he never did and never would deserve it. It was a love that seemed to point to his weaknesses with her ever speaking a word and without her ever intending it to be that kind of spotlight.
She was looking at him now and her eyes were shifting. Changing as Eve’s must have chagned right after she ate that fruit. Changing in the ways that all women’s eyes change when they know, and can no longer deny, that they have just been told something false.
Not just an everyday lie either. Those can be overlooked but a falsehood so painful they can’t close their ears around it and seal it away unheard. They can’t turn their eyes to chopping onions and pretend the life they see through painful vapors making their eyes water is acceptable any longer. The kind of lie that finally sets flame to fires that have laid with stick after stick of woody untruths.
He saw the knowledge braking through and his knees jellied as he pushed her gently farther away. The smell of disappointment had become sharper and tinged with something unknown. He knew he had better leave before she found the action for the impulse he could feel building in the air. He mumbled something about needing to clean up the tractor and stepped toward the door. He was already grieving the muddy patterns on her cheeks as more tears of a different kind began carving their way down her face.
He was, underneath the sound of his churning guts, shamefully relieved that she knew now. She knew he could not be whatever it was that she had seen in him so many years ago. There was no need to pretend any longer.
The screen door slammed behind him and he fairly rain down the front steps toward the fields knowing that his feet would take him past the alfalfa and the wheat, through the sunflowers and onto the road beyond. He didn’t know where he would go only that he had to.
He didn’t know that the rest of his life he would never be able to shake the smell of those life altering moments. People in his life afterward wondered and even remarked on his strange habit of carrying a lemon or cinnamon stick in his pocket: compulsively rubbing it on his nose every few minutes like a nervous tic. He bore his penance with silent acceptance never explaining to anyone why he had such odd behaviors when it came to scent and eventually no one even bothered to ask.