Julia Klatt Singer
people who met Lucy Slade thought she was insane. When asked if she liked
swimming, “boiling corn” was her answer. On a hot July day that is what the
city lakes smelled like to her; a big pot of boiling corn.
Added to it, the smells of wet sand, baby oil.
The wet sand and baby oil were each linked to other memories—cats dead
in the street, her sickly baby brother, her mother shaving her legs, the
basement of her grandfather’s store. These
memories evoked other scents and odors, linking together Lucy’s life like a
city map. “Did she have a happy childhood?”
Vinegar, aspirin, and cool soil came to mind first.
Lucy Slade wasn’t insane. It was
the world around her that had lost track of its senses, something she could
43, Lucy had come to accept the fact that she’d never quite fit in, that
people didn’t want to hear about the smells around them, how alive they are,
all that they carry. Neighbors
hardly noticed the long willowy woman with a slight underbite, clear chestnut
eyes and yarn-like hair the color of knotty maple.
No one but Lucy knew that she smelled like rainwater.
No one stared, even when she stopped to sniff the bricks (hints of rusted
iron and twine) of the carriage house she lived in.
She was a quiet woman, a modest dresser, wore mainly beige and ivory,
sometimes white. Nothing about her
demanded attention. She lived on her
own. Kept house and held a job at
the public library. Stayed out of
the way. Kept her stories to
herself, much like the books that surrounded her in the stacks.
loved the smell of books. Old musty
one, new ones still smelling of ink, paperbacks that carried the odor of every
hand that had touched them—like buses did—and the ones wrapped in yellowing
cellophane that reminded her of cemeteries.
wasn’t allowed a desk job, but instead had spent the last twelve years
shelving books in the lower vaults. She
was quite good at it—never misfiled a book and often found ones out of place
and put them where they belonged. Some
that had been lost for years. She
spent six hours a day in the dimly lit stacks, climbing up and down ladders,
walking the silent streets of this city of books.
She liked working. She
shelved and retrieved as many books as the three other stackers did together,
and never complained about the darkness, the dank damp cavernous room, the dust,
the dullness tinged with grave-like sounds.
loved her job until last week.
Weathermore, one of the check out ladies, decided to search Lucy’s bag on her
way out of work on Thursday. Lucy
carried an assortment of books—all the ones she like the smell of—and Janice
made a big show of checking to see if they were library materials that Lucy was
trying to steal. A coffee-laced
Nancy Drew mystery, a volume of Neruda poems that smelled like oranges, three
paperbacks that reminded her of her mother and the latest Vogue were laid out on
the counter. Janice seized one of
the paperbacks and barked to Lou Ann in circulation, “Isn’t this one of the
missing titles? “Love’s Sweet
Surrender, by Pauline Hamilton? It’s
YA-Young Adulterous,” she added with a giggle.
felt her throat tighten, her skin heat up. Felt
all of the eyes of all of the library workers and the line of customers waiting
to check out books behind her, on her. A
sour smell rose from Janice’s direction. A
smell like cat vomit. Lucy felt her
own stomach tighten. She needed air.
was one of those agelessly plump women. The
only thing thin on her was her nose, and her sense of humor.
Her dyed blond hair showed gray roots, and she often looked like she had
just seen the ghost of her dead high school principal.
Janice had lovely pink lips, lips that looked as though they had just
been kissed. Unfortunately she was
one of those people whose mouth naturally frowned.
the poor thing be,” Lou Ann said from her chair across the lobby. “We
aren’t missing that one.”
kind woman in line behind Lucy helped her load her books back into her bag.
Lucy walked home slowly, avoiding all cats, breathing in as much fresh
air as she could without hyperventilating.
Good Friday the library was closed and Lucy didn't have to go to work.
Three days she tried to forget the smell of Janice and what had happened.
Three days she was grateful not to have to work.
She had always dreaded holidays in the past.
Even the books smelled sour now, the ones that Janice had touched.
The Vogue magazine no longer held its new inky perfume, underneath sat
something cheap, dirty.
Easter Sunday, after having dinner with her brother Leo's family, Lucy was
reluctant to go home. Usually the
medicinal nature of her brother and his family drove her out, but today it felt
like a chaise lounge--uncomfortable and difficult to get in and out of, but
lovely, to have. Especially if you
looked at it from across the room, far enough away that the scent of it is
Leo's oldest son asked her what she thought about the local baseball team's new
pitcher, she replied, "Moth balls."
He found this hilarious and sought her commentary on the entire team.
Even Lucy saw the humor in it and was soon laughing with him.
morning came and Lucy headed off to work. She
slipped in quietly, avoiding the check out desks located to the left of the
front doors by entering with the janitor, who smelled like cinnamon and shoe
polish, through the service door. She
went down to her floor and waited patiently for the first request.
was for an older volume of Norwegian poems, located with the rare books.
As Lucy carried it to the book elevator, she noticed an interesting
thing. The paper the request was
written on smelled like motor oil, and the book, like kerosene.
Lucy paused. Stood completely
still. Waited for the overhead light
to flick off. Then, breathing in the
scent of the book and the slip, Lucy let herself go.
was back in her grandfather’s garage. It
was the summer of 1957 and Lucy was waiting for him to finish pumping up the
tires in her new bike. It was her
birthday present, this red two-wheeler, and she was seven years old.
Her grandmother had braided her hair that morning, and tired a ruby
ribbon on the end of each braid. Lucy’s
thin sand colored hair usually hung limp down her back, but with the braids she
could flip her hair over her shoulder. She
liked watching the glossy red out of the corner of her eye.
garage was dark and cool. Full of
all sorts of odd, old things. Wooden
wheels, rusty tools, a yoke, a horsewhip, and six horseshoes.
Kerosene lamps sat on the ends of the workbench, leaving dark oily rings
on the wood.
walked to the section that contained the rarely requested history books. Lights
flicked on as she moved through the stacks.
Following her nose, she found a volume on the history of the bicycle that
also smelled like motor oil and kerosene, and added it to the Norwegian poems.
On the bottom of the slip she wrote,
you might enjoy this book too, L.S.”
check out volume increased by 50% that month and many of the borrowers started
commenting as they waited in line. Many
patrons returned their books early so they could request a few more, hoping to
receive another present. The
additions Lucy sent thrilled most of the readers because they were often
something they’d been searching for without being able to name it.
The books brought back memories that had been packed away long ago.
had inspired Naomi Evenson to start needlepointing again.
Rodney Hill took up bread baking. George Hamilton, in the memory of his
grandfather, was riding a bike again at 70.
Lilian Zambowski was painting landscapes.
Max Synder was keeping bees. Cecil
Black was writing a play about his boyhood neighborhood. C.B. Smith was thinking
about bull riding after reading the travel guide to Spain Lucy had sent him.
woman asked Janice who L.S. was, showing her the note Lucy had written her about
the Greek mythology volume with the engraved color plates Lucy thought she’d
Lucy Slade is the only employee with those initials,” she replied.
“Although I don’t think Lucy’s got enough upstairs to write her own
hearing and overhearing dozens of patrons commenting on how great Lucy was,
Janice decided to request a couple books herself to see what Lucy recommend she
read. On her next cigarette break, she told Sherry, the new check-out girl, her
idea. Janice would use a fictitious
name, so Lucy wouldn’t know it was she who was requesting the books about the
clinically insane. Sherry would pick
them up before their next break.
sent three additional books. A giant
picture book of cats with a slight case of mildew, a copy of Edith Wharton’s Ethan
that smelled like ice, and a travel guide to Branson, Missouri that smelled like
Jean Nate’ perfume. On the bottom
of the request, Lucy wrote, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
outside the library on the bench near the bike rack, Sherry and Janice laughed
over the selections and note Lucy had sent.
As Sherry paged through the books, Janice felt a wave of anger, then
sadness wash over her. “I need
another cigarette,” she said as she crushed the one she had been smoking with
the heel of her tennis shoe. The sun
slid behind a cloud, and Janice felt damp.
books stink, you know, like… a cat’s litter box and…” Sherry wrinkled
Jean Nate’,” Janice flicked the butt of her second cigarette into the bushes
to the left of them.
God I wore that in 7th grade,” Sherry coughed as she
laughed. “Thought I was so grown
up. I stole it from my big sister.
Of course she smelled it on me and told my mom.”
was only half listening. Her head
was throbbing. “Got in a lot of
trouble, did ya?”
Just had to give it back and take a bath until my mom couldn’t smell
the perfume anymore.”
could picture Sherry as a thirteen year old now.
One of those girls that never got in trouble.
One of those girls that was cute, even with a zit or two.
Like her baby sister, Nora. Pampered.
Never grounded. Never got the
belt. Never humiliated in public
like she was.
at thirteen, had prayed for breasts. She
was a large, cubby girl, but none of the fat ended up on her chest.
She knew that being popular with the boys meant having breasts, if you
weren’t attractive otherwise. But
God never answered her prayers. She
too had stolen Jean Nate’, but she stole it from the Ben Franklin downtown and
got caught. Had to sit in the
manager’s office until her mom got off work, and came to pick her up.
She was then lectured by both the manager and her mom, and ordered never
to set foot in the store again.
they got home, her mom whipped her with her belt, spelling out Jean Nate’ with
each whip, as her sisters watched. She
knew what she had done was wrong, and knew also that her mother whipping for
this was wrong too. But her mother
liked drama, and whipping Janice for the attempted theft would keep the other
girls in line. Her mother told Nora
and Emily and Teresa and Paula that if they were smart they wouldn’t eat too
much like Janice and then they wouldn’t need perfume to get the boys’
attention. She prayed to God to
strike her mother down, but again he remained silent.
bummed a third cigarette off Sherry. She
used to love the smell of a just lit match, even liked the cigarette smoke in
her shampooed hair, but today she waved it off in Sherry direction.
Flicked her ashes into the wind the way her mother used to, not caring
where they landed, who they burned.
smelled the cigarette smoke as it drifted in the only open window of the break
room. Four floors up, the smoke
traveled, carrying with it the scent of tree leaves opening, the earth warming
up. She wondered if she was the only
one that knew that you can only bury, ignore and forget so much.
There will always be a piece that will linger.
A faint memory, like the scent of lilacs in bloom, of a hundred candles
burning, of fabric crisp and new--never been washed—or some other smell you no
longer remember, but will one day encounter and with its lofting odor so much
more will come. That much was
certain, of this Lucy was sure.