Thursday, May 08, 2008


"I love it when you visit your parents. You come back smelling like country people; damp wool and wood smoke." Natasha said this without looking up from the table at which we worked.

I did. Returning from the amber warmth of their modest house, heated by cast iron stoves at either end, I carried an olfactory infusion of the house I grew up in. My parents sat in twinned chairs. Dad's was a stiff upright Windsor rocker thinly padded with a circle of braided rag, Mom's a long coveted and finally acquired Lay Z Boy, fat with poly dacron, indestructibly sheathed in brown Herculon, and softened with home made embroidered cushions and slip covered squabs. They gloried in the close heat of the stoves, reluctantly migratingfrom the one in the kitchen only when the one at the other end of the house had been stoked into radiant life. The heat rose through a grill in the floor by my bed under low eaves above the parlor where they withdrew in the evenings. As a boy, I'd watched them through the grate. My father would rise, lay his folded paper on the empty sofa and kneel to tend the fire. When he opened the door a wisp of white smoke and ripples of invisible heat would escape and rise toward the grate, and sometimes sparks too, but they would fizzle like tiny spent fireworks short of me. Shivering, out from under quilts and comforters, lying on the wide wavy pine boards, my chin on folded hands I peered intently from above. His face would flush and flash in the red glow of the embers hidden in the firebox, with the licking flames reflected on his horn rimmed lenses, and then return to its furrowed brow pallor when he shut the thick beveled cast iron hatch.

Natasha was English (in spite of her name). She'd been spawned in Devon and matured in Manchester nightclubs listening to Factory Records tracks- in former factories - 'til the sun rose over the low haze of coal fires. In the interim she was incubated on the bucolic campus of a British Public School where her speech, her precise BBC diction and lyrical cadence was formed and refined. That voice was a stark contrast to her appearance: thrift store frocks worn over ratty jeans and thick soled boots, printed polyester blouses and acid colored cropped v-neck sweaters, accessorized with an ever present yellow and orange messenger bag. It held her chipped and abraded SLR camera, spare plastic barrettes, zippo lighter, perhaps a Japanese thermal canister of brown rice and pea pods, and fresh panties, all tossed together in a vagabond's salad. She'd used the bag previously for other gear and supplies - shovel, axe, canteen - issued to her as a California fire fighter for beating back the burning brush on the hills above the HOLLYWOOD sign. With the camera she took pictures of the burned kerosene and oil exhaust trails left behind jet airplanes and the peeling paint of abandoned factories; their iron furnaces long ago banked and cold. Sometimes, on warm soggy days her bag still smelled of conflagration.

She pronounced the words "whoo-ool" and "whoo-d" drawn out, like a languorous Lady Marjorie from "Upstairs Downstairs". Her words gave my chunky sweaters and reefer coat that much more loft and absorbency with which to capture the heavy aroma of salty humidity (blown in from the nearby Sound, sometimes with stray seagulls ) and combusted with winter felled oak limbs and no longer productive apple boughs. Three hundred miles away at the table where we worked I pressed a knitted wrist and muffler fringe to my face and inhaled the scent of home.
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