From the author: Here I sit, Elaine thought drearily. The has-been who never was.
The day after her parakeet died, Elaine decided to kill herself.
It wasn’t so much the loss of the parakeet — in fact, Elaine and the bird had never really hit it off. While she dutifully fed and watered it, and tried to train it to sit on her finger or return to its cage when called, the bird seemed to resent its captivity and spent most of its time sulking on its perch. So although the parakeet had been part of her life for the last five years, when Elaine woke up that morning and found it stiff and cold at the bottom of its cage, she only felt a vague sort of sadness.
She wrapped it in tissue paper, placed the small package into a biodegradable bag and put her jacket on. She’d find some hidden place in the park, perhaps at the root of a tree, and bury it. But just before she opened her apartment door, she decided to check her email.
There was a note from her mother, complaining that she couldn’t balance her checkbook and could Elaine come over and help? A notice from PayPal that she’d gotten a payment from the incredibly boring freelance job that was her current source of income. And a polite but impersonal email from a gallery up in Albany saying that, while they thought her submission was excellent, they had decided it didn’t fit comfortably with the other works they had already chosen for the show. But they knew that she would soon find someplace else to exhibit it.
This was the final straw. Standing at the door, holding a dead parakeet in one hand and her phone in the other, Elaine suddenly knew that the dreams she had lived with for the last forty-five years were dead as well. She stared at the phone and then, in a moment of absolute fury, threw it across the room. It hit the opposite wall and shattered, shards of glass and gray pieces of metal scattering around the living-room floor.
The anger passed as quickly as it had come and left behind a deep emptiness. Elaine shook her head slowly and sank down on the couch, staring at the remains of her phone.
“So, a dead parakeet and a dead phone. Well, that’s two out of their misery,” she said out loud. She sat there for a few more minutes.
“Fuck it,” she finally whispered. She knew what she could do. Should do.
She strode to the bathroom and opened her medicine cabinet, but she didn’t see anything useful there. Then she remembered: she had a prescription for Ambien that her doctor had given her recently to help her to get more sleep. Perfect. That, and perhaps a couple of shots of bourbon, should do nicely.
She found the prescription and put it, her wallet, her keys and the bag with the parakeet into a soft pocketbook, and left.
After dropping the prescription off at the pharmacy, Elaine walked a couple of blocks to the park. She might as well bury the parakeet properly. It was the decent thing to do.
She headed for a small wooded area, where she thought there might not be too many people to disturb her. She waited while a small group of preschoolers trooped by under the careful eyes of their teachers, then stooped down, pulled a good-sized rock out of the damp earth, put the bag in the resulting depression and then replaced the rock. “See you soon,” she muttered, stood, and without any more ceremony walked back.
After a while, she found a bench, sat in the sun and idly watched the world pass by. The park smelled of life: of sweaty runners and hormonal teens; of dogs and leather leashes and cat food left out for strays; of perfumed penthouse ladies and old men who hadn’t showered in days. A child ran by with a half-eaten bag of popcorn, redolent of butter and salt, squealing and giggling. It was a scene that, a year ago, would have made Elaine grin.
But she no longer cared. Because the child and her father and the others in the park were part of life and time. It had nothing to do with her. She sat and thought.
Elaine had been careless about the passing of her life. As a child, she had drawn and painted with a concentration and intensity that convinced her and her teachers that visual art was her calling; it was something that she never questioned. But after she graduated college and left her parents’ home, she lived life without paying much attention to it. She created art and tried to sell it, had sex occasionally, met with friends and went to work, lost jobs and found them again.
When success didn’t come immediately, she didn’t worry. There would always be enough time. Time to draw, time to meet people, to have children, to grow up and grow old. It was always ahead of her, always in the future.
But somehow, although she managed to sell a few illustrations to a few obscure magazines and show her work in several tiny, unnoticed gallery exhibitions, real success never happened. Nobody — the critics, the buyers, or even the other artists — ever gave her more than passing notice. And although she dated, and found men, and left them, and found others, the children, the family, never happened either.
And now, she was forty-five. She was still sending in sketches, still trying to have her work seen, but it was obvious that galleries were looking for younger artists with potential and energy. When she went to exhibits and openings, the twenty-somethings looked at her and her graying hair with pity and then walked past, confronting those of her generation who had succeeded — who had worked harder, or worked better, or had just been luckier than she had — with angry, unsubtle suggestions that they step aside.
And here I sit, Elaine thought drearily. The has-been who never was.
A voice to her left asked, “Excuse me? May I interrupt your thoughts for a moment?”
Startled, Elaine turned her head. A very tall, thin man sat on the end of the bench looking at her with an expression of vague inquiry.
Even seated, he was at least a head above her, and his clothing hung so loosely that she wondered whether he was ill, or so poor that he had to take clothes that didn’t fit. He wore a full gray wool overcoat despite the relatively balmy weather, a pair of dress pants that had their original crease, and a pair of pristine white running shoes without socks. It was a very strange combination of clothes; if they hadn’t been so obviously new, she would have thought they had been grabbed at random from a thrift shop.
She looked up to examine his face and recoiled slightly. It was almost abnormally long, with a wide mouth and thin, nearly nonexistent lips. Large, very dark eyes gave him the aspect of a rather weird child. His nose had no bridge to speak of — she wondered how he would ever manage eyeglasses — but just popped vaguely into existence around the nostrils. He wore a dark woolen hat that hid the top of his head; his ears, like his nose, were small, with hardly any lobes.
And there was something else wrong about him, something else different. But she couldn’t quite make it out …
Elaine suddenly realized that she was staring and quickly said, “Sorry. What did you say?”
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” the thin man said. “But I couldn’t help noticing that you are conscious of odors. Mine, specifically.”
That was it, Elaine thought. The thing that she noticed, the other thing that was wrong about him. It wasn’t an unpleasant scent, such as the kind that she normally associated with homeless people who had not had the opportunity to wash themselves recently. It was more of a sharp, spicy taint.
“I’m sorry,” she said automatically. She had been brought up to be polite, and the idea that she may have accidentally been rude enough to indicate, even unconsciously, that the man next to her had an unpleasant smell temporarily overcame her wish that he would go away and leave her alone.
“No, I am the one who should apologize,” the man said. “I did not mean to indicate that you were being discourteous. In fact, I was intending to compliment you; in this overwhelming environment, few people are sensitive enough to distinguish individual scents. If you don’t mind — and please be honest, this is a hobby of mine — what would you say I smelled of?”
“Burnt curry,” she said immediately.
“Meat or vegetable?”
It was asked with such open curiosity and immediate acceptance that Elaine, despite her despondency and nervousness, found herself pulled into the conversation. “Meat, I think,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh. “Lamb perhaps, or beef. Not chicken, though.”
“No.” The man pursed his lips and looked straight ahead for a full minute, his head going slightly side to side, as though he meant to be nodding but had gotten the direction wrong.
“Extremely interesting,” he said. “You must have quite a refined sensitivity, especially considering that you have recently been close to a deceased animal.”
“What?” Elaine stared at him. “How did you know?”
The man’s head stopped. “How could I not?” he asked. “You reek of it. And of the earth you buried it in.”
When Elaine didn’t answer — she couldn’t think of what to say to that — he continued.
“I wonder,” he said. “I hesitate to ask, because I know I am a stranger and should not ask this of another stranger, especially one of your gender, because it would be considered impolite and possibly threatening. However, I will proceed. Would you mind offering me the same information again under slightly different circumstances?”
“You obviously have a sophisticated olfactory sense. Sophisticated when compared to most of your peers, of course, but impressive for one as inexperienced as yourself.”
He paused for a moment. “I am highly curious about your potential; what your abilities might be should you not have these obstructions. Would you mind coming back on a day that’s convenient? It would be especially helpful if you bathe for that period using more neutral cleansers.”
He had to be some kind of slightly eccentric university professor. The idea that he was studying something to do with the sense of smell interested Elaine; maybe she should be careful not to damage her nose or brain when she killed herself. Somebody might want to dissect her. She had a brief mental picture of her body lying on a metal table with a toe tag and the tall thin man staring up her nose and saying, “Fascinating!”
It almost made her laugh.
Instead she said, “That sounds interesting. What sort of soap would you suggest?”
On her way home, Elaine stopped off at the drugstore. When the pharmacist handed her the small bottle of pills, she revolved it in her hand thoughtfully for a moment.
“Do you,” she asked, “know of any soaps and shampoos that are completely unscented? I have a friend who is, um, sensitive.”
They had agreed to meet at the same bench four days from then. “Unless you have other plans, of course,” he said almost diffidently. And no, he didn’t have a phone number or email address at which she could contact him. Just as well, she’d thought, remembering the broken phone still in pieces on her rug.
After she bought the soap and shampoo, Elaine stopped off at a nearby takeout, ordered some soup and lo mein, and walked home. As she put her key in the lock, balancing her purchases awkwardly in her left hand, she wondered a bit at her own interest in the experiment. What good could all this do her? Why did she care?
What the heck, Elaine thought, entering her apartment and putting down her packages. She could make it through four days. She felt, a little to her own surprise, intensely curious as to what the man would smell like in four days. Would he cheat, and rub himself with something weird or unpleasant? Was he simply putting her on, and she would arrive to the laughter of a group of his friends? Was it just the sense of smell that he was studying, or was he trying to figure out the intricacies of the brain through one of the senses it controlled?
Maybe she would do a bit of research before she met him again, just for the hell of it.
After dinner, she cleaned up the living room, dumping the remains of her phone in the trash. She picked the bottle of pills off the kitchen counter and put it up on the top shelf of her medicine cabinet. She sent an email to her current employer saying that she had come down with flu, then hesitated for a moment and ordered a new phone online. What the heck, she might still need it. And if she decided to use the pills up in the medicine cabinet, well, then, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Elaine spent the rest of the evening researching the olfactory system. She read in one source that the sense of smell usually starts to disappear after age sixty-five; when another source gave the age as thirty-five, she bit her lip and changed her search phrase to “How to improve your sense of smell.”
The day before the scheduled meeting, Elaine could hardly stay still. She was beset by a stomach-roiling panic that something had gone wrong, that she had made some uncorrectable mistake. What if he didn’t show up? What if he turned out to be something different from what she remembered? What if, when she got there, somebody else was already sitting on the bench? What if it rained? And what if she failed whatever test he was going to give her? What then?
It didn’t rain. The day dawned chilly, cloudy but dry. Elaine left her apartment just after 3 p.m. and walked slowly to the bench. As she got closer, a slow sensation of anticipation began to mix with her habitual anxiety. She was, she realized, actually looking forward to it. To something.
What, she wondered, could somebody do with an improved sense of smell? What practical use would it have? Creating perfumes? Testing wines?
What kind of art could you create with it?
As she neared the bench, she felt a rush of relief. The thin man was already there, tall and stiff, his eyes fixed ahead as though he were watching some invisible TV show. When Elaine walked up to the bench and said, somewhat hesitantly, “Hello?” he immediately turned to look at her and the corners of his mouth went up in something approximating a smile.
At first, Elaine was a bit dismayed; was he simply mocking her? But he said, with apparent sincerity, “I’m very glad you decided to return. And,” he added, “you have found a relatively odorless soap. Excellent.”
“Relatively?” Elaine said, sitting. “The pharmacist said that this was completely odor free.”
The man cocked his head slightly. “That is, of course, impossible,” he said. “The pharmacist may not know that, but you and I do.”
Pleased, Elaine nodded. He was including her in the group of those who could discern more than others.
“But it is considerably better than it was,” he said. “So now, what do you perceive about my odor?”
Elaine turned her head to him and tried not to sniff audibly. “Still spicy,” she said. “But not quite curry. I’m sorry, but I’m not that familiar with spices.” Although she had tried to do some research, mainly by walking through a couple of Indian spice shops. “A little peppery, maybe? And …” she paused and breathed in for a moment. “A little milky, if that doesn’t sound too strange.”
The man rocked his head to one side. “Thank you,” he said. “That is very interesting and not inaccurate, especially for an untrained attempt.”
He didn’t say anything else. Elaine waited for a minute or two then asked, “Is that all?”
The man’s expression didn’t change, but he dipped his head for a moment. “I am sorry,” he said. “Was something more expected?”
“Well, I thought …” Elaine began, stopped, then began again. “I went through a lot of trouble to try to get this right, and I thought …”
“Ah.” The head rocked from side to side again. “You thought perhaps that you could be trained. I regret that I may have inadvertently misled you. Besides the fact that you are much too old to be trained …”
Of course, Elaine thought. She took a breath.
“… there is the fact that you are planning to kill yourself, so any training would be useless.”
Elaine stared at him. “What?”
The man looked at her blandly, his lips pressed together, his large eyes wide and inquiring. “I sensed that you had made plans to kill yourself. It seemed fairly obvious; was I not correct?”
“How did — I mean —” Elaine stuttered. “Why would you say that?”
His eyes were so dark that she couldn’t see the irises; they seemed made up of a deep brown pupil surrounded by a pale, almost pink coloration. “It was in your scent, of course,” he said. “It is why I felt free to start a conversation with you — because it was safe to interface with someone who planned to eliminate themselves within a relatively short timespan.”
Elaine shifted so that she was sitting facing him. She needed to figure this out. “Who are you?” she asked. “I mean, really?”
“I am what you would call a researcher,” he said. “It was pure chance that we met, but when I picked up the scent of your despair and then realized that you had an embryonic talent of your own, I became fascinated by the possibilities for my latest line of inquiry. If you would allow, I would be grateful for a small DNA sample so that I could examine your genetic line. Before you die, of course; I can work with a posthumous sample, but a live sample would be preferable.”
Elaine shivered. The sun had begun to dip beneath the buildings that lined the park; it was late enough so that some of the young executives had begun jogging in their expensive running shoes and bright shorts; those who preferred bicycles sped past while parents with young children stared after them disapprovingly. The evening smelled of mown grass and the distant emissions of passing cars.
Elaine pulled her sweater tighter around her and, for the first time, really considered the idea, the reality — as much as anyone could — of death. She thought of the possibility of an afterlife and rejected it; thought of the complete loss of the concept of I am and was suddenly terrified.
What the hell had she been thinking?
She felt as though she had just come to her senses; as though the personification of what she had been about to do had, in the form of the tall thin man, kicked her back into the real world.
Okay, Elaine thought. Take a breath. Go back to your apartment; call a couple of friends and talk to them for a while. Maybe even pull out a few sketches and see if any deserve to be finished.
Or, she thought, maybe I need to go in a different direction. Maybe I could do something with scent. Something interesting. Something that combines the visual and the olfactory.
Elaine stood and started to walk away. She had a lot to consider. A thin hand with long skeletal fingers grabbed her wrist. “Please,” said the man. “Before you go, before you eliminate yourself, I need my sample.”
Elaine turned and instinctively pulled her arm out of his grasp. For a moment, in her enthusiasm for her new possibilities, she had completely forgotten about him. It took a few seconds for her to recover and say, “Sorry. If you want a small sample, a hair or a swab, I’d be happy to give it to you. However, I have to tell you that I have no intention of killing myself. Now or in the immediate future.”
She shrugged. “You should be able to sense that yourself.”
The man took a long, inward breath then blinked rapidly, his mouth working like that of a goldfish that suddenly found itself outside its bowl. “But that is terrible,” he said. His tone didn’t change, but Elaine knew, with complete certainty, that he was very distressed. She wondered if his scent had changed and she just wasn’t registering it on a conscious level.
“You see,” he continued, “that would mean I’ve changed something here, and I’m not supposed to. I’d be subject to censure should my colleagues discover that I interacted with a subject to the point where I changed its life path. It would be disastrous.”
Elaine stared at him. “Not nearly as disastrous,” she said, “as my death would be to me. So sorry, but can’t oblige.”
She turned again, and again he grabbed at her arm, this time with a more powerful grip. He was blinking so quickly that she wondered how he could see. “Please,” he said. “You must understand. You cannot imperil this project by changing your trajectory. Your time line. If it is found that I affected a life here, the results of the study would be called into question. I could lose …” he paused for a moment, searching for a word. “Lose what you would call my tenure. It is highly important.”
She turned again, and again he grabbed at her arm, this time with a more powerful grip.
Elaine pulled; he still held her in a very tight grip.
“If you’ve become reluctant, I can help. It will only take a moment. Wait …” and he began to reach into his pocket with his other hand.
Panicked, Elaine look around for something, anything, that she could use as weapon — and then saw it, just under the bench. She quickly crouched down, reached out with her free hand, picked up the small pile of turds, probably from a stray dog. She stood and flung it into the thin man’s face.
He immediately let go of her arm. His nostrils clamped shut, his mouth and eyes opened wide, and he began to choke, emitting loud, high cries of distress. He clawed desperately at his face and fell off the bench. Several passersby, alarmed, started to gather.
Elaine bent over him. “Someone call 911, please!” she called out. “My friend seems to be ill!” Then she whispered quietly to the man as he tried to breathe past the ripe, overwhelming odor of dog shit, “The emergency services will come. And the police. They’ll take your fingerprints and check the records. You think my not dying will change things? Will call attention to your presence here? See what happens now, you son of a bitch.”
His eyes widened and he tried desperately to grasp at her arm. Elaine stood, smiled a wide, angry smile, and strode away as the emergency sirens came closer.
She raised her head and inhaled the sweet spring air. She was a little curious as to what would happen to the tall thin man. But she didn’t have time to hang around.
She had her art to get back to. And life.
Read about this story's background here.
This story originally appeared in Triptych Tales.
An epic tale of the supernatural that begins with two young girls meeting in a magical glade, and follows their two families from the turn of the 20th Century through the terrors of the Holocaust and ultimately to the wonders of a future they never could have imagined.
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