Monthly Archives: July 2008

The Smell Collector

"The Smell Collector" - David Wilson-Burns © 2010

On some level, we all do it.  Olfactory memory is believed to be the most powerful memory of all.   I remember the day when I realized how valuable and unique smells are.  In the mid-summer of 1977, I was a very young child of four, and my dear mother had taken me with her to the post office.  There were two worlds happening in this post office.  One at a height above the counter and one at a height below the counter.  My world was below the counter.   In my world, there was a beautiful little girl.  Her hair was shiny and brown and was drawn up with a red bow.  She wore a pretty polka dotted dress.  On her feet, were ruffly socks and patten leather shoes.  She did not say anything to me.  I did not say anything to her.  After all, I would be gone soon.  My family was moving to a different state.  Mother was filling out a change of address form.   A few days after we arrived at our new house, mother took me once again to the post office.  And here, I collected my first smell.  When I entered the office, the smell  immediately triggered the memory of the girl.  This post office smelled exactly like the other one.  In that moment, In my own five-year-old way, I longed for that girl.  It was the first of many experiences with unrequited love.

Smell collecting is unique.  It’s not like stamp or coin collecting.  You can’t keep a smell except in your memory.  However, it is far more rewarding then any silly stamps or baseball cards.  It is like having a time machine.  A smell can take you to another place and time.  It takes you to a very intimate moment in your life.  Smell is a very intimate experience.

After thirty-one years of collecting smells, I’ve built a system that works for  me.  Smell Collecting requires a combination of documentation, travel, and chemistry.  When you’ve found a smell that you want to collect, you begin by documenting the experience.  What did you feel?  Where was it?  What were the circumstances?   What was the time and date? And so on.  Next you must undergo the more challenging task of discovering what is creating the smell.  Sometimes it’s simple.  A ballgame is popcorn, beer, cut grass, and roasted peanuts.  It used to include tobacco smoke, and sometimes includes a hint of human urine.  Others are not as simple.  It requires investigation.  For the post office, I later inquired about the cleaning agents.  I researched the composition of the counter and the floors.  I sniffed and studied the whole lobby.  Other strong contributing smells included stamp glue, paper, scotch tape, packing tape, dust, and the metal that comprises the post office boxes.  All of this must be carefully documented.

And finally, if you want to revisit one of your smells, you have two choices.  One, you can go to the place where you collected the smell.  I make as many as 20 little trips a week to browse my collection.  Or, two, you can attempt to construct the smell.  This is where chemistry comes into play.  Some smells  are not bound to a place.    They exist in a single moment in time.  A woman’s perfume, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a little bit of diesel fume, and some spearmint gum might come close to someone’s first kiss, for example.  Of course, it’s almost impossible to recreate a first kiss because of the human element.  I’ve tried samples of human saliva and sweat.  I’ve tried various hair products and toothpastes; anything, really, that I imagine might go into a first kiss.  Perhaps she’ll be wearing Secret Deodorant For Women.  I fancy, that she’ll be wearing some sophisticated perfume from the Channel line.  Mother always says that my first kiss will make me light-headed.  I wonder if it has anything to do with the smell?

My smells are my life really.  Smells and Mother.  I don’t know what I would do without them.  Smells capture all those special moments.  Mother’s goodnight kisses, for example:  Maybelline lipstick, stale coffee, Channel #5, and Finesse Moisturizing Shampoo.   I think it’s a great hobby.  More of a way of life really.


Note to Fly By Night Readers…


If you were one of the folks who I left hanging with “Fly By Night”, I want to direct you to The Reconciliation

Someone out there published another novel with the Fly By Night title, so I’ve changed it to The Reconciliation .  I’m determined to finish this thing.  I believe in it.  I believe it has a place in the world.  I know how it ends and I’m just dying to bring it to you.  I’ll begin by publishing the first 14 chapters (or some variation thereof) as a weekly serial.  My hopeful prayer is that by the time I publish the 14th chapter, I will be able to pick up where I left off and take it on home.

If you are new to this novel, perhaps you’ve found me through my stories here on fictdoodles, please consider taking this fiction journey with me.  Give The Reconciliation a shot, will ya?

Briar Wood

Cigars kept making him throw up.  He thought perhaps a pipe would suit him better.  To Jeff’s eyes, his pipe had a certain old school cool to it, although he was embarrassed to bring it out in public.  Jeff’s take on old school cool was not generally a winning formula for him, and in this case, his wife had been waiting in ambush to remove this scourge on cool and health from her house.  She succeeded when she decided to wash the coat where he kept his pipe and tobacco, citing the I-get-to-keep-or-throw-away-anything-that-you-leave-in-your-pockets-when-I-wash-your-stuff rule.   He did not argue with her, even though he felt he had a strong case not having asked for his coat to be washed in the first place.  But he let it slide because he was ready to upgrade.

Albert, the proprietor of Long Live the Pipe and a master pipe maker, surreptitiously eyed Jeff, as he carefully examined the pipes on display.   The faint gleam in the shop owner’s eye was evidence of the hope that Jeff and other young men might carry on ancient tradition.

“Al?  I’m having a tough time picking one out this time.  I want something unique.  Nothing fancy, but something really…special.”

Albert raised his eyebrows.  He was bushy in general, and his eyebrows were certainly no exception.  He pulled slowly on his artfully carved Meerschaum.  Smoke swirled around his enormous head filling the room with a mellow vanilla.   The faint gleam in his eyes increased by an almost imperceptible degree.

“Something special,” murmured Albert to himself.

He  disappeared behind a curtained doorway and return with a small wooden box.

“Would you consider a previously owned pipe?”

He offered the box to Jeff.  Inside was a very old and exquisitely made bent briar pipe.   It was flawless.   Two tiny letters were carved on the underside of the bowl:  DM.   The pipe seemed to exude it’s own subtle light.

“What’s the DM stand for?” asked Jeff, his eyes fixed on the briar wood pipe.  “Are those the initials of the man who carved it.”

“Well I can’t be sure, but I was told that it stands for Douglas MacGregor.  He was one of the finest pipe makers in Scotland.  But he was not the maker of this pipe.  This one was made by his apprentice just after the death of his master.  Something of a memorial. ”

“Geez, Al, I doubt I could afford something like this.”

The gleam that the pipe was giving off seemed to grow as he continued to stare at it.

“I’ll tell you what.  If you promise to come back and see us, I’ll give you a deal on this one.”

Jeff left with the wooden box and a bag of his favorite blend.  He stepped quickly in anticipation of his first smoke with the new pipe.  He was pleased.  It was already nicely broken in.  It was a good smoke.

After a few weeks, Jeff began to notice some changes.  They were subtle at first, but lately they were becoming more pronounced.  At first, the change manifested itself in subtle changes in perception.  He began to understand the pipe on a more technical level.   He soon began to appreciate the remarkable craft that produced this pipe.  And then he began to imagine exactly how to go about this craft.   But he didn’t become concerned about any of these changes until his whiskers began turning into a beard almost over night and his eyebrows began to get bushy.

He found the small wooden box that the pipe came in and began to examine it.   He quickly discovered that it had a false bottom.  He found the trigger and popped the panel out.  There, in the hidden compartment, was a small card.  It read:

To the bearer of this pipe,

If you are reading this card, I have most assuredly departed from this earth.  I had but a short time to live after the death of my teacher, Mr. Douglas MacGregor.  I knew I would not have the time to pass on his fine craft to another apprentice.  So I’ve constructed this pipe from the briar that was growing near his grave in the hopes that by some miracle of the spiritual world, his craft would pass to future generations.  Long live the pipe!

Most sincerely,

Charles Burrows



“Lingering” – David Wilson-Burns © 2010

Their presence was just an accepted part of his routine by now.  Perhaps just emotional impressions from previous inhabitants, or perhaps their lingering spirits.   The house was old enough.   Whatever the case, here they were:  a man and a woman.  Their faces were indistinct.  Their demeanors were anguished, confused, unaware.  When they came, it was in the moment between waking and sleeping, and only if his spiritual vision was active from an evening meditation.

His response was consistent.  “Spirits,”  he would address them, “Guard my home against harm or leave. ”

Connor believed in spirits earning their keep.

He only became concerned when his daughter of ten began to complain of emotional disturbances at bedtime.  He felt helpless and perplexed as she described feelings of despair and deep sadness which seemed unrelated to her.  On  a late May evening, after the sun had sunk beyond the horizon, she told him, with trepidation in her voice, that there were rooms in the house in which the feelings were stronger.  The only room that she felt entirely free of these feelings was the dining room.

He pulled the structural records for the house and noted that the dining room was added twenty-three years ago.  This eliminated the last three owners, leaving only the original owners.  Their names were right there in front him in black and white.

Belly of the Church

Of course they would have closed them up, he thought as he knelt by the old church.   In retrospect, he supposed they were pretty dangerous.   He recalled the cool, dank air that used to drift out of the basement through these open vents and into the summer heat.

The old church that served as his playground, had four vents just inches above the sidewalk on both sides of the building.  They were just tall enough for a child to squeeze through.  Although he was generally afraid of the vents,   his fear did not prevent him from climbing through them and into the basement.

He supposed they must have closed them off years ago in favor of a more modern ventilation system.   In doing so, they closed off the possibility of danger for the children that played near the church.   For the child who still lived in Brian, however, they closed off much more.   It had been a gateway into a forbidden underworld where a forgotten secret threatened the peace of this quiet little antebellum town.  He never considered sharing what he found, until now.   The ugly truth that lay buried in the basement of the church had spread and twisted it’s roots through the foundation of this town and was now beginning to crack the surface.

Keeping Time

Throughout the evening, Daniel was periodically aware of the ticking of a new watch he was wearing. He wasn’t used to wearing a watch anymore and he was a little bit pleased and a little bit annoyed every time it invaded his consciousness.

Daniel had a bad track record with watches. He never could seem to keep one for more than a year at a time. His wife, Ashley, used to buy him watches, but he would inevitably lose track of them. The fact that a man who can maintain a large scale computer system for an international airline, skillfully run an elementary school classroom, and transform $50,000 in student and credit card debt into $75,000 in sound investments but could not keep a Timex on his wrist from one birthday to the next baffled Elizabeth.

It’s not that Daniel didn’t like watches. Watches were actually very important to him. He could still remember his first watch. He had wanted one of those new digital watches when he was a child, but his parents insisted that he should learn to read time with hands, first.

He remembered that his first watch was a very plain Timex with a black, plastic band and black numbers; no date, no month. Perhaps he got it for a birthday, he wasn’t sure. He spoke with feigned pride at school about his reason for having a watch with hands.

“You know, people aren’t going to be able to read time this way anymore if they just use digital watches. I think everyone should have to wear a regular watch before they get a digital watch because what if they’re in a room with only a regular clock? They might be late or something.” This was the explanation Daniel had given to his friends who wore digital watches, much to his envy.

Daniel’s first digital watch came just as scheduled: one year after receiving his first watch. It had multiple settings including regular time, military time, time with running seconds, and (Daniel’s favorite) a stop watch.

Daniel used to compete with his brother, Gabe, in church using the stop watch setting. They would take turns seeing who could start and stop their stop watch using the least amount of time. Gabe had achieved the record of nine milliseconds. Daniel would not break that record until the day he helped the P.E. teacher at the school where he taught years later. He was in charge of timing the fifty yard dash on a track and field day using a digital stopwatch. He recalled his childhood competition and ended up scoring seven milliseconds while practicing between heats. He wondered if Gabe remembered the long standing record.

When Daniel was in sixth grade, he purchased a calculator watch. He could perform most mathematical functions right there on his wrist. Unfortunately, the watch became fresh ammunition for the group of boys who had nicknamed him ‘Mr. Computer’.

‘Mr. Computer’ was a name that referred to Daniel’s insistence on raising his hand to answer every question that he knew the answer to, which was most of them. Neither the boys or Daniel had any idea that computers would lead him into such a lucrative career.

By the time Daniel was fifteen, he was ready to step up to a level of mature sophistication that a digital watch could not provide. He wanted a watch that would go with the tie and slacks he wore to church. With the money he was earning at Fruti Tuti, a soft serve yogurt shop in the mall, he purchased a watch with a black leather band and a silver colored rim. Daniel was attracted to the ‘old school’ look of it. He felt a little more refined when he wore it with the tie that his great aunt Emma had returned to him on accident and the shirt that his best friend’s dad had previously owned. The fact that both items were previously owned by successful lawyers who could afford a certain level of sophistication made Daniel feel a little sophisticated regardless of the permanent, yellow, smelly pit stains under the arms of the shirt.

Ashley had hoped to train him to keep his watches. He would be permitted to have a watch if it were very cheap. If he wore it for a year, he could get another watch that was a little nicer and so on until he could finally buy a watch that he wanted. Daniel had long since resigned himself to wearing thirty dollar watches. He could never get passed the first level.

Fragrance of Forgiveness

Cigarettes and Skin Bracer aftershave. That’s what that old truck smelled like. They don’t even make Datsuns anymore. Lucas always thought it was a pleasant combination, one he would always associate with forgiveness, gentleness, and fatherhood. When he became a father, just ten years later, he would begin wearing Skin Bracer, although he didn’t smoke. Forgiving and gentle. This was the kind of father he wanted to be.

So, this was Lucas’s big chance. This was his chance to impress Amanda’s father with what a good kid he was. They were all sick as dogs, the Millers. Stomach bug. Mr. Miller needed someone, probably anyone, to pick up a few things at the grocery store.

“He wants you to take the truck,” she groaned, handing Lucas the keys.

Lucas returned an inquiring glance.

“He knows you don’t have a lot of money for gas. It’s fine.”

Her head hit the pillow.  He did not yet have the grace or instinct to touch her hot cheek with his cool hand before he turned to go.  He had something else on his mind.

Wow,” he thought as he took a right turn out of the neighborhood, feeling a sense of belonging and trustworthiness.

Lucas was just sixteen and was still adjusting to driving in general, much less a stick, but he managed fine. The grocery list was trivial and he was already headed back to the Millers’ house.  Stopped at a light at the bottom of the interstate overpass, something caught his eye in the rear view mirror.

The scene unfolding in the mirror was almost impossible to believe and required an immediate response.  Three men in a brown 1981 Camaro were headed his way.  Actually, to say that all of the men were in the Camero is inaccurate.   One man was driving the car backwards down the overpass in a serpentine fashion while the other two were sitting on the back of the car clutching beer cans.   The men’s eyes were wide.  The bellowed with laughter and thrill.  They were drunk.  How they stayed connected with the sloping rear of the sports car will remain a mystery to Lucas.

Lucas looked ahead.  The light was red.  He looked behind.  There was no time to waste.  He slammed the stick into first and gunned it.  Before the truck’s engine had a chance to stall from poor coordination between the clutch and the pedal, it was hit from the right which caused it to spin a complete one hundred and eighty degrees.  Lucas watched, frozen, as the Camaro swerved, outboard passengers and all, into the gas station parking lot on the corner before the light.

A police car arrived in just minutes.  Lucas remained in the car, the traces of adrenaline still pumping through his body.  He was ok.  The drunken men were picked up in the 7-11 buying more beer.  The police drove Lucas and the bag of groceries back to the Millers’ house.  The truck was towed to a nearby Goodyear.

Lucas stood at the front door while the police drove away.  He had struggled to speak to the police officer at the scene of the accident and he was struggling now to formulate the words he would need in order to explain to Mr. Miller what had happened.  The shock he was feeling from the accident was beginning to give way to guilt.  The truck was very clearly totaled.   Once the feeling was let loose, it began to fill his body with a heavy, damp, sinking sensation.  He could barely lift his arm to grasp the door handle.  Failure hung around him like a foul odor.

As he opened the door, he scrambled to form a plan of action.  The most important question he faced was whether or not to tell Amanda or to tell Mr. Miller.  In his heart, he knew that this was between he and Mr. Miller.   He was vaguely aware that this was one of those formative moments in his life.  Would he be a man who faces his problems head on or one who cowers in the corner avoiding and hiding?

He carried the paper bag of groceries to the kitchen counter and emptied it’s contents.   He poured out  two glasses of 7-Up over ice, took a deep breath, and headed for Amanda’s bedroom.  He set the first glass down on her bedside table.  She stirred from her nap as he brushed her hair from her face and kissed her on the forehead.

“Thanks, sweety,” she creaked.

He paused.  No words came to his lips.  He patted her on the leg and left the room.  He paused again outside of Mr. Miller’s room.  He knocked and entered.

Mr. Miller cleared his throat and tried to sit up.  Lucas offered him the cold glass and pulled up a chair.

“Is everything ok, Lucas?”

Lucas stared at his shoes.

“Well…I’m ok”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

As Lucas raised his faced, his eyes met Mr. Miller’s calm gaze.  Lucas was still accepting the fact that he would have to tell him what had happened.

“Like I said, I’m ok, but…um…well…”

“It’s ok, Lucas.  Just tell me what happened.”

Yeah, sure.  It’s ok now because you don’t know that I just totalled your truck! thought Lucas, panic rising in his chest.

“Well, there were these guys.  They were drunk.  I was just trying to get out of the way.  The other car just came out of nowhere.”    He made a few gestures to indicate the nature of the impact.

“Is everyone ok?” he asked, with sincere concern.

“Yes, but your truck.  I mean it is totally…screwed”

“Son, it’s ok.  The police called me before you came.  I’m just glad you’re ok.   That old hunk of junk was starting to smell bad anyway.”

He smiled and gave Lucas a single nod.  No words needed to be spoken with it.  The message was clear.

You’re a good kid.