January 26, 2008

Vase final

"...It hits you like a thousand feathers."

by B. Foote

The first smell is your grandfather’s garden. It is heavy and green. The corn smells like wet paper and the shed like grease and pesticide. You spend whole summers camped in the corn rows, making trips to the shed periodically for old bolts, wire, and garden spades to make secret landmines for epic wars with enemies hiding under the shadows of the corn stalks.

Later there are the smells of carpet and Lysol. Your mother’s house is always clean on Sundays and everything smells bitter from telling friends you can’t come out today, there is work to be done. But through the bitter is your mother’s perfume. It is radiant and forgiving. Woman. It smells like department stores and her bedroom. It is scraped elbows and broken toes and good grades and dinners with just the two of you on the couch watching Westerns.

More years and now you have new smells. Adina’s hair in the autumn. The smell of your father’s truck as it rolls into the driveway and cools off from the long trip home. It smells of fuel. Carbon. It smells like a father. And father smells like the military. Kwik boot polish and military cotton. Airplane fuel, and missiles, other scents that can not be located because you have never smelled the work of men who load bombs, and you were not there when these men guided planes down from the sky, soaking themselves in jet fumes that flood the flight line.

And one day you have a precious smell. The smell of another boy’s mouth, and neck, and navel. And these smells are also heavy and green. And you are in another kind of cornfield, with cool shade and earth; his standing over you, skin wet with adolescent ache and hunger.

So now you know where are. Another year or so has passed and all the smells you need have been taken in through the avenues of your nose and mouth and stored inside your chest and head for catalog and keeping. You will only have variations of these smells that you have collected.

Until it hits you like a thousand feathers. You are in some small store where you shouldn’t be, looking at things you shouldn’t look at. It is a new smell that you have not known. You look around the shop for where it is, and you want to take it and run away with it so that you won’t forever associate the smell with plastic door curtains and posters of pot leaves. It smells like exotic rich gold and emerald. You are young and will never know a smell like this again.

You buy three boxes of it. Inside the blue and white package is wax paper stamped in Hindi.

You should have known that was what India smelled like. It smells like youth and tomorrow and different. Not begging children and bogus yogis charging American Express for bankrupt dharma bullshit. It is the India of strange elephant headed, multi-limbed, pink, crimson and baby, baby blue gods pumping peace and better memories into the air. You are concerned about the little yellow stick that barely holds the wet of the damp grainy resin up. The very smell of it seems to bend the poor thing into an obscene curve.

You will spend an entire year burning this smell in your room and car, and it will permeate everything you own. And you will have peace.

It is ten years now and you are in a metropolis with too much to smell. You smell the panic of people around you, you smell the postman delivering upset letters from the State of New York. You smell another pitiful cup of noodles and greasy bread. You smell more boys and for a while you smell a lot of powders. You decide it is better not to smell at all. Now you breathe cigarette smoke out of your nose, rejecting scent, pushing it out away from you to keep other smells at bay. You only want to smell yourself.

Until one day you are walking down across 21st Street and you smell India again. Briefly you are in pink and orange rags with garish head markings and corn stalks, car parts, sex, summer, fighter jets, fathers, grandmother, and hot strips of asphalt in your myriad hands and you turn to tell a friend,

“Heaven smells like Nag Champa.”

Rock-Tenn Plant Smoke Column

Vase final

"...A poorer, sadder version of myself."

by M. Maiden

Some of my strongest memories from my youth have to do with that brief time I attended school at St. Albert’s in South Milwaukee. I was only there through first grade, which is long enough to know that what they called a playground was a fallacy (it was actually the parking lot they used for church on Sundays) and that I never had a nun for a teacher (but the principal was a nun, and she would refill your Elmer’s Glue bottle for a quarter).

Before I was pulled from this bastion of academia, I knew a girl named Leslie Stakowski. Leslie was like a poorer, sadder version of myself. Whereas my mom just made me wear enormously thick glasses to correct my lazy eye, Leslie had to wear the glasses AND the patch to correct hers. Whereas my school uniform was definitely used, hers was threadbare. Her last name was alphabetically similar to mine, so we often had to stand next to each other: lunch line, on the way to gym, assemblies, Halloween costume parade (I was a die, as in “too poor for the pair of dice”, she was a ghost or something equally pitiful). Despite these similarities, I don’t remember getting to know her much. Rising above my economic disadvantages, I still hung out with the girls whom had twirly earrings and fancy scrunchies, and Leslie was not a fancy scrunchie girl.

However, because of our Christmas pageant, Leslie will forever remain in my memory. Our pageants were nothing more than all of the parents crammed into the same cafeteria that we had our pancake dinners in and singing Christmas songs, grade by grade. I believe I wore a velvet dress, white tights and black shoes (no plaid jumpers for us!) and, of course, I was standing next to the similarly last-named Leslie. As we filed in, I could smell the unmistakable aroma of French’s Yellow Mustard.

I was not a mustard eater by any means. I have always had an extreme love of hot dogs; despite never being quite sure which part of the animal they come from, I can eat hot dogs any time, any place. One of my first memories is of cruising around my grandmother’s kitchen in my Walk’n’Go with a chopped up hot dog on the tray in front of me. However, I never ate them with mustard, since I was—and will forever be—known as a ketchup girl. But I knew that yellow smell, and that day it was pungent.

As we filed in and stood on the carpeted risers, the smell grew stronger. Our music started, probably "The Little Drummer Boy", and I looked around to see when to start singing, and I caught a glimpse of Leslie: brown corduroy jumper, coke bottle glasses (no patch tonight, her parents took mercy on her) and there, caked around the corners of her mouth, was yellow mustard. Not just a bit, but enough to look like she’d eaten three hot dogs right before walking on stage, without access to a napkin or wet-nap. And I just stared. And inhaled. And wanted to die.

My mother retains sole ownership of the video from this particular concert and you can clearly see me staring at Leslie in disbelief; me, barely singing, her belting out the lyrics and loudly clearing her throat (no doubt it was probably so caked in mustard she was having trouble breathing). As an adult, I can finally eat and enjoy honey mustard (it is the new ranch), but the smell of French’s Yellow Mustard will always make me want to retch.

Dumped Snow Couch
Ian Talty, 2008

Vase final

"I felt dirty in a whole new way."

by Jenn Kelly

We have all known since we were very young that the sense of smell is not to be trusted. Don’t pretend you weren’t one of those little kids who took a swig out of the vanilla bottle even though you were warned that, contrary to its intoxicating aroma, it tasted like ass. Yet we’re taught to not only trust but rely on this sense. People use it to make sure that the milk hasn’t gone bad, that the fruit is ripe, and to lead them to the Froot Loops.

Like most things in life, scent’s trickery comes with rougher consequences as we get older. It’s not just a bitter taste anymore. It could be a scrumptious cologne on a not-so-cute boy eliciting the olfactory equivalent of beer goggles. Or, as I recently learned firsthand, it could actually be someone else’s sense of smell that triggers the regret. The problem is that smell lingers, and it will shamelessly rat you out.

On a Saturday night, I found myself having a great conversation with an awesome boy. He was funny, successful, not a jackass, and met the crucial older and taller criteria. He was great company but when I couldn’t get him to stop trying to make out at the bar, my self-conscious instincts got the better of me. Like a fight-or-flight response where all other thought processes take a back seat until stress levels return to normal, eliminating the potential to become part of the gross couple that needs to get a room became the only thing that mattered. In a flash of impeccable judgment, I suggested we leave.

On the Upper West Side in his one bedroom apartment, he started giving me these eyes like a sexy face gone horribly wrong and I finally caught on that being seen wasn’t the biggest problem here. Oops. Unfortunately, in my dense misinterpretation of the situation, I had left myself defenseless - it was too late to bring up an early morning commitment and I was clearly too lucid for him to believe I could actually pass out. I had no choice but to adopt the cafeteria mentality: in the face of only gross choices, you have to shut off your head and just take the plunge. You can’t think about it or you’ll never make it through. Sadly, we weren’t talking about a questionable turkey sandwich here.

I took my cab ride of shame the next morning feeling completely confused by my own stupidity. Seriously, what made any of the previous night’s decisions seem like the right ones? No more vodka. I was about to give myself a full mental beating when I had the genius epiphany that I could make everything better by simply pretending it never happened! I was one of only two who knew the truth, and I might never see the other again. All better.

I walked past my doorman in my four inch heels and running makeup. “Crazy night with the girls last night!” I unnecessarily explained with a cheesy smile. He gave me one of those raised-eyebrows nods that means he thinks I’m still drunk. As I approached my studio, I was internally rehearsing lines about the dude being a gentlemen and dropping me off at my place on his way home, which I would later feed to my gossip-hungry friends.

At home, I was anxiously greeted by Vijay, the most puppy-like cat you will ever meet, always happy to see me. I reached out to pet him, which usually leads to him leaning his head in as if he just can’t get the affection fast enough. But instead, he pulled back a bit and crinkled his cute little nose. What was this? I held out my hand, hoping he had merely inhaled some of the chili powder that I use to keep him from chewing on exposed wires. Vijay cautiously sniffed. Then he ran away. “Vij?” I called. He looked at me, shook his head, curled up on his cat tree, and refused to make further eye contact. Oh my God, he knows! The cat is judging me!

I love my cat more than most parents love their children, but keep in mind that this is an animal that prefers licking the faucet to his water bowl. Sometimes, he sticks his paws directly into the toilet because he is oddly fascinated by water, and later that day I will find him licking those same paws. Even on nights when I stumbled home smelling like booze, cigarettes, pot and various other New York City aromas that osmotically tainted my being, Vijay still followed me around and bit my ankles until I picked him up. But this smell of lowered standards, this disgusted him. I felt dirty in a whole new way.

I immediately jumped into the first of roughly eight showers I took that day. I moisturized, sprayed perfume and put about fourteen products in my hair. I washed away my sins leaving everything from vanilla, to coconut to lavender in their place to regain the love of my cat. I spent about $25 on the subsequent laundering of all of my towels and another $15 getting a moisturizer that could actually repair my now dried-out skin. Don’t underestimate the sense of smell, it trumps sight and touch. It will give away your mistakes even if no one saw, and if you smell like mistakes, no one’s getting close enough to care how you feel anyway.

Icy Gas Pump Nozzle
Ian Talty, 2008

Vase final


by Eli Dvorkin

He took a handful of sand
from the beach in the heat
of the day while we slept
in the shade of the whale

that heaved and then did
not heave but our eyes did
not open but our noses did
fill with the reek of dead

and we awaken to find one
whale grey rotting to bone
taking with it our shade
and we redden

and we burrow caught
in hermit crab flight
as our fingers claw beach
we find it has changed —

he had taken one
handful away.

"The hollow scent of a vast antediluvian civilization, now frozen and buried, smothered by a thick sheet of ice and trapped deep beneath the ocean. Thick incense, clay, stone, and hothouse blooms with a spike of frost, a hint of decay, and heavy, dolorous aquatic notes."

Tainted Water
Ian Talty, 2008

"Luminescent, glowing, and otherworldly: green mandarin, neroli, honeydew, white amber, guava, freesia, white and green musks hovering over desert scrub, smashed wood, and the dry, biting scent of night air over the Groom Lake salt flats."

Vase final

"Who's your favorite uncle?"

by Chris Kelly

Standing across the room from me is my nephew Will, who is now sixteen months old. He lives with my brother Ryan and his wife Leah in Minneapolis, and I see them rarely. Several months ago, the last time we had the chance to spend time together, Will could neither walk nor utter intelligible words, two skills he has since acquired. Other than slight increases in height and weight, his appearance remains remarkably similar, but these developments make him seem like an entirely new being: he is no longer a doll, but a person. I look down at him with apprehension and wonder. He looks up at me and smiles. "Book!" he shouts, grabbing a cardboard copy of Goodnight Moon and beginning to waddle toward me.

I am 27 and have thus reached the age when it becomes acceptable for others to wonder about my long-term plans. As a single gay man, I am afforded a great deal of leeway in this area: few relatives are willing to ask me outright when (or whether) I am having a kid. They rely instead on hints, most of them revolving around my skills with my nephew. "Chris, you're so good with Will!" "Oh, Will loves you!" "Will, who's your favorite uncle?" They eye me expectantly, hoping that I might shed some light on my intentions in this area without being directly solicited. And I might, if I knew.

Straight couples are expected to reproduce. The rules are not as clear for me. My longest relationship was with a partner who was vehemently anti-child, and when it seemed likely that I would marry him, I was content sharing this outlook. More recently, I was involved with a boy who mentioned on our second date, and several subsequent occasions, that he could not wait to be a father. I don't feel the burning desire to take on an heir at present, nor does my current way of life make such a thing advisable, but I cannot undo the months I spent imagining myself as the other dad in that equation.

"Book!" Will says. It's true. I am good with him. He loves me. I am his favorite (and only) uncle. "Get over here, Billiam!" I shout, earning a grin from his Gerber Baby face. We will once again run through the familiar routine: I lift him onto my lap and read over his shoulder as he turns the pages too early, likely stopping before we have finished the story when he reaches toward the table to make a new selection as I wonder if this is something I could one day do with my own baby. This time, however, we deviate from the usual agenda. Will stops before he reaches me. Squats. Furrows his brow. Grunts. I have an idea what is happening here.

"Ryan, I believe your son needs a change."

And my brother, a lawyer, linguistic ace, wry humorist, model of patience, unapologetic nerd, and world-class father, picks Will up over his head, plants his nose in the seat of the boy's pants, and inhales deeply.

"Yep," he says, reacting as casually as if he were reviewing the contents of the morning's mail, "it's about that time."

Not for me, I realize. Maybe for you, Billiam, but not for me.

"A gentlemen's lavender-citron cologne unhinged by the feral pungence of black musk and a paroxysm of pennyroyal."

Glassy Eyes
Ian Talty, 2007

"Strong black tea and milk with white pepper, ginger, honey and vanilla, spilled over the crisp scent of clean linen."

Vase final

"King of Shit"

by Tom Blunt

I've never thought shit was funny, not even from a young age when everything is supposed to be funny and poo is one of the few artistic mediums at hand. It was impressed upon me at a very early age that bathroom time was personal, and that no good could come of attempting to share it with others. I remember prowling around my mother as she weeded the backyard, taking it upon my three-year-old self to gather up all of the fresh, clean rabbit droppings that odorlessly littered the ground. I became obsessed, like Godzilla at an Easter-egg hunt. When my pockets were full to overflowing, I began to fill my little toy wheelbarrow industriously. When it too was filled to the brim, I presented this harvest to my mother. "Look, mom! Rabbit turds!" I proclaimed, as if I was the king of them. The look on my mom's face was unforgettable, and left me no illusions about the real worth of my kingdom. Personal, I reminded myself, even for rabbits, and I went inside and washed my hands. Twice.

Shit is the one inescapable indignity, but humor is supposed to save you. Unfortunately I lost my humor at an early age when I found myself unduly shit upon—once at first, then over and over again. Even with a keen sense of smell to warn me, it managed to slip past my detection and assault me from all directions, no matter how content I was to leave it lay. I was still King of Shit, only now I sat begrudgingly on the throne.

At five, I was excited to attend my first rodeo in full cowboy regalia. I was plenty aware that my stiff new jeans and itchily-embroidered shirt established me as a man-in-training, and so I toured the stalled livestock with a cousin my age, fitting business for men of our stature. My boots dug into the muck like little hooves, and I was careful to pick up my feet when I walked. As we strolled along observing the bored cattle, a lank tail suddenly twitched to one side and there was a noise like squeeze ketchup, and before I could blink I was covered in a thin layer of watery shit from head to toe.

In real life, it was just that quick, but my memory is happy to slow it down to five frames per second. I can see the anus distending like a snail's eye on its stalk, I hear the muffled report (sound travels faster), I feel the impact on the various zones of my body, not excluding the face. Then the smell reaches my brain, interrupting my denial. I assume a Carrie-esque posture of catatonic disbelief. And then I wail, wail as if dying, my cousin (unscathed!) leading me gingerly all the way back to the house. The women gathered in the kitchen were nearly as sympathetic as I wanted them to be. I was stripped of my man-costume, put in a hot bath, and forced to endure the shame of an evening indoors with the ladies while my clothes tumbled in the drier. And it was not funny, not in the least—in fact, I took it personally, a warning to me from the universe itself about the inhospitable nature of the world, the dangers of manhood. My small fingers shriveled in the water as I lay there, taking note.

I would relearn this lesson many times. When I was eleven I noticed the cattails growing back behind my grandparents' farmhouse for the first time, and eager to pick and examine some, found myself treading deeper into a thick marsh where the grasshoppers crackled and the stalks grew higher than my head, so I held my breath to keep from inhaling pollen and bugs. Suddenly I realized my feet were immobilized, mired in black mud up to my ankles. In my struggle I lost both shoes and fouled my socks wading back out. I burst into the kitchen completely begrimed but with a whole crop of cattails in my arms. The adults knew before I said a single word that I'd found the septic trench that was fed by the household's sewage and gray water.

Dad laughed as he rescued and hosed off my rank sneakers, asking (for the amusement of the grownups) if I'd been fishing back there, and if I'd managed to catch a "Missouri Brown." That afternoon while I cowered in my room, he and my aunt snipped the stems off a few of the fat brown cattails and floated them in the toilet, filling up the camera their sister had accidentally left behind with shots of this as a surprise for when she had her vacation photos developed. Not funny, I thought from my hiding place. And though the events of that day would only make me more paranoid about the public humiliation of getting shit on, the very next summer I'd require adult rescue yet again, having buried my grandfather's four-wheeler to the floorboards in what I'd assumed to be just one more mud puddle, but was actually a deep lagoon of sun-ripened feedlot cowshit.

I could do nothing but grow up and hope my life would turn out to be more than just a string of miserable incidents requiring cleanup with a hose. While I still cringe at shit humor (a quirk which, in my family, is an even greater liability than vegetarianism or a vote for Kucinich), I do have to admit that my concept of “personal” expanded greatly as a result of my trials; at first, writing was merely an escape from embarrassing reality, but over time it’s become a new way to relish it—if the joke is on me, then I may as well be the one telling it. Even if it stinks.

"Stately, bold, aristocratic and cruel. Opulent galbanum and amber, glistening peach, and a bouquet of French florals, with a merciless undertone of jonquil and heartless vetiver."

All You Need Is Glove
Ian Talty, 2008

"'I promised her my eternal love, and I actually thought that for a couple of hours.' Rake, scoundrel, demon in a frock coat. Devilishly seductive, ultimately tragic; a villain undone and redeemed by love. Based on an 18th century gentlemen's cologne: ambergris, white musk, white sandalwood, Spanish Moss, orange blossom, three mints, jasmine, rose geranium and a spike of rosemary."