Ghosts

Does anyone else remember the Brewery Blocks? The way that area used to smell? The cloying sweetness of brewer’s yeast heavy over the blocks surrounding Powell’s Books? The smell would cling to you, permeate your car, follow you out of the city as you returned to the suburbs.

Powell’s itself still smells the same. Musty, dusty books and strong coffee. The years I lived in California, I avoided bookstores, because they didn’t smell right. They smelled too new, too polished. Amazing how scent memory colors everything. I’d buy my books on trips home to Portland, and carry them home in my suitcase or ship them to myself, if I’d overbought. Avoiding the Los Angeles bookstores, which were rare in any case, because they reflected the world they were built in. Shiny, plastic, artificial. No coffee shop tucked into the corner, no pub next door. No smell of marijuana and beer clinging to the patrons, no brewer’s yeast outside the front door. No smell of rain or wet sidewalks or soggy umbrellas. Just the smell of smoggy air, new paper, body spray, and sunscreen.

Although, not really related, I loved the Oceanside library and the chance to gorge on books on the beach where they filmed Baywatch. Alternating between my novel and watching the surfers, slowly turning the color of toast.

Does anyone else love the smell of the country in the Northwest in the depths of summer? It smells like blackberry cobbler, from all the berries slowly withering on the brambles. The ghosts of early summer’s roses hover in the air, and the first rain has a smell I cannot describe.

And, after even the barest scent of Brut aftershave, I can feel the coarse polyester of my father’s uniform slacks against my cheek. When I was small, I’d put my head on his knee when he sat on the couch to watch television after work. He had a rich metallic smell to him, as well, which I now know was the scent of the weapons and radios he worked with, in the equipment room of the sherif’s office. I feel the bristle of his whiskers when he’d kiss me on the forehead, the rough wool of his sport coat the day I was married. I can see the watery green of his eyes and hear the deep timbre of his voice. I remember the smells of coffee and cigarette smoke when I was a little girl… warm summer mornings when my parents would chat and smoke and drink coffee before Dad headed to work and Mom did whatever it was that she did. He’s been dead now almost fourteen years, and just a whiff brings it all back.

Scent memory is such an amazing thing. The way our brain creates pathways, immediate reactions which bring us directly to a place and time that hasn’t existed for years. One moment, and you are four and roller skating for the first time, or fourteen and being kissed for the first time. You are getting married, or grieving, or laughing. You are with lovers and friends and family long gone, and it’s as if their ghosts have come to give you a gentle hug, briefly pulling you back to past, urging you to not forget them. And you find, in that brief instant, they are alive again, and vibrant… new buildings crumble and the old ones rise again on your horizon. Your soul remembers the laughter and loves and heartbreaks of the past, and the door to eternity opens, briefly, and then closes again, dumping you back in the day-to-day world.

 

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