From Chapter I
Naomi awoke to mint. With her cheek still burrowed in the pillow, she opened one eye. Black fields buzzed past, the engine whined. She felt the baby move in her belly, the warmth of her husband’s hand on her thigh. She and Scanlon had been driving cross-country for a week, and tonight they’d arrive at their new home in Oregon. Without lifting her head, she cracked her window, and the smell of mint filled the car. Fecund earthy mint carried on moist night air. She used to love mint. Mint tea, mint jelly, mint gum. Like basil, a taste that’s mostly smell. Peppermint, apple mint, crinkle-leafed spearmint. She’d never known an entire night to smell of mint.
She’d had these dreamy remembrances before. Like an itch on a phantom limb, her olfactory neurons—understimulated and bored—would register simmering veal, river algae, the powdery aldehyde of Chanel No. 5, sweaty palms on a subway pole. Visual cues often prompted these olfactory apparitions; she’d turn the page of a magazine to a Cheerios ad, and her brain would light up with “dusty grain going soggy in warming milk.”
Before she lost her ability to smell—anosmia, the doctors called it, sometimes psychosomatic but in her case not—she’d occasionally wish she could switch her nose off. Eye masks and earplugs were readily available, but nothing for the sleeper awakened by toast burning half a block away or a roommate in the shower before dawn sudsing up with fennel shampoo, nothing from Bose to mask the ammonia on restaurant tables or food scraps sitting in drains, no way to shut out the treacle of mildew, feces, or halitosis.
She was a nose. At least she had been. She’d trained at École Givaudan- Roure in Grasse, worked two years for Dior in Paris, a year for Shiseido in Tokyo, then back in New York for Calvin Klein and Manhattan Scents. Her perfume creations were defined by sharp and leathery base notes in the tradition of My Sin, a flapper perfume from the twenties—an era, in her mind, to emulate. (To Naomi the twenties were like the late sixties but with better clothes and some discretion, and without politics to distract from the pure indulgence of the senses.) The quick dry-down from the initial spark of her floral and citrus top notes led to a darker primal place forested with agarwood, lichen, and moss; Naomi’s fragrances were a drop of orange-blossom honey sucked from the tip of a lover’s finger while sprawled in lusty sheets.
Like many noses, her favorite fragrances were her own. She knew she was creating the same perfumes over and over, trying to chase the scent back through layers of her own memory. Trying too hard: this had been the common complaint through all her years in the industry. Her nose was one in a million for perception and discernment, but her fragrances were too specifically evocative and didn’t interact fully enough with the skin of the wearer. Or so said her critics.
For bread and butter she’d scented hand creams and hair products, designed three facial scrubs and the rosemary shampoo Scanlon used. She’d been influential in a Calvin Klein project (eventually shelved) to impregnate jewelry and fabric with fragrance. She’d worked on dish soaps (one for Palmolive called Summer Breeze that Scanlon said smelled exactly like camp), pumpkin bread mix, Cap’n Crunch (“preserve its essential smell,” they told her, “but tweak it healthier”), shoe polish (to remind us of “all our dads”), a “leather” fragrance for leatherless car interiors, and, for a Japanese fruit importer, an injectible that made their peaches smell peachier.
Then one night her father came into Manhattan to take her out to dinner. Though she could see that something was on his mind, they chatted normally in the restaurant; but his anxiety steadily increased, so much that while driving back to her apartment he rear-ended a taxi. As they waited for a tow truck on the sidewalk in front of Tower Records on Broadway— Natalie Merchant’s voice floating down from the awning—he finally divulged what he’d come into the city to tell her.
She shook her head at the news: the wife of her old boyfriend Clair had given birth to twins. “That’s what you’re so anxious about?” she said, hugging her dad. “Next time tell me at the restaurant, and we’ll keep the airbags in the dash.”
They had believed no one was injured. But the next morning Naomi woke up with her neck so stiff she could hardly turn her head. She popped ibuprofen and called in sick, and with her first sip of tea she realized she couldn’t smell it.
She saw doctors. She had CAT scans, MRIs, and endoscopies. At work she told no one. Sitting with dipsticks at the organ, surrounded by five hundred essences, she created fragrances from memory alone. Surprising, evocative fragrances, she was told by colleagues. She thought about Beethoven composing while deaf, simultaneously flattering and pitying herself, but mostly struggling to even fake it. Finally, after months of anosmia, the work turned depressing, and she quit.
When she met Scanlon she was a consultant, a perfume buyer for New York boutiques. She didn’t like it and found herself working only enough to pay the rent. She burned through her savings and too many Dyptique candles, certain that the lavender and rose, anise, sage, green fig, and coffee hanging in the air would heal her. She’d put on Chopin’s nocturnes then search the air above the burning candle, knowing there was a smell hovering there that was more physically present than the music she could hear.
She began leaving melon rinds and swordfish scraps in her garbage pail for days. She left un-rinsed yogurt cups, tuna cans, and tubs of cottage cheese out on the kitchen counter, sure that the next time she stepped inside, she’d get knocked flat by the rotting stench. She never did. But the first time she brought Scanlon back to her apartment for tea, she saw his face pucker. She lit a stick of incense; he sat by an open window. She knew it was time to give up.
And now she was leaving both New York and the industry behind, her departure freighted with the fact that in her twelve years as a nose— through the hundreds of candies, cleansers, Pop-Tarts, and ointments for athlete’s foot she’d worked on—not one of her perfumes ever made it to the bottle.
Through a half-open eye, the lights of Douglas, Oregon, came into view. She imagined mint still hung in the car. And stronger smells: gravel dust, macadam, and soda-pop sugar infusing their floor mats and the soles of their shoes from ten days of rest areas and fast-food parking lots, all of it now cooked up with the heater on their feet.
She sat up straight. She really thought she was smelling. Was it possible? Since her pregnancy there’d been hints—a whiff as she passed an Indian restaurant, a cloud of diesel smoke blasting from a city bus—but they never lasted more than a moment. As she drew air slowly through her nose, Scanlon switched off the blower and the smells were lost.
They rose up the east side of the bridge crossing the Willamette River, then dropped down the west. Scanlon eased to a stop at a red light on the edge of downtown. An alarm was ringing from the Wells Fargo bank on the corner—an actual bell, like the fire drills at school when she was a girl. Apparently, somebody had thrown a brick through the bank’s front window. Two other cars waited at the intersection, their drivers and a few pedestrians glancing without much curiosity at the broken glass. No flashing lights were racing to the scene. Squeezing her thigh, Scanlon spoke softly: “We’re gonna like it here.”
They passed a Blockbuster and a church, motels and a Mexican drive-thru. She gazed out the window at a row of used cars with bright yellow prices in their windshields, parked around a concrete island where gas pumps had once stood.
After several blocks of old Craftsman bungalows, they bumped over a railroad crossing and the houses turned newer—tiny cottages, then tracts of ranch-style houses. Naomi remembered how dispirited she’d been sitting at the computer in their New York apartment searching through Douglas real estate websites: page after page of identical low-slung ranches pictured against a gray sky, each with a wet pickup parked in a wet driveway. They’d looked for weeks, made countless calls, then Scanlon had flown out and bought one in a weekend. She couldn’t even remember what it looked like.
Their headlights glared off the white door of their detached single-car garage. In ten days of driving Scanlon had shut down the engine fifty or sixty times, but this time was different: a silent finality.
“We made it,” he said.
He opened the front door of the house with a sweeping gesture. “You’ll hurt yourself,” she warned, but he insisted on carrying her (and thirty extra pounds of pregnancy) over the threshold onto a rectangle of green and gold linoleum. She stepped out of her shoes and walked across their living room, curling her toes into the beige wall-to-wall carpet. Scanlon kissed her—“Welcome, my love”—then flipped on a bright ceiling light. The walls glared white. The skimpy baseboard and trim were glossy white. The house was a box, divided into smaller boxes. Their furniture would help, some color on the walls, her kilims to break up all that beige carpet, but mostly the house felt like an overlit basement. If she’d expected colors from apricot to aubergine, the previous owners must have coveted the white urbanity she’d grown tired of after all those years in New York.
“Not as much character as an older place,” he said, “but totally solid. They were still using old-growth fir for two-by-fours out here in the sixties.”
She was exhausted. “That’s good,” she said.
They dropped the shades, inflated the Aerobed, and tucked in fresh sheets and both comforters. They curled up on their sides, foreheads touching, and even before she was warm, he slid his hand up under her nightgown and kissed the tops of her breasts. She couldn’t shake the sense that this was a camping trip to a remote patch of the world from which they’d soon return home.
And then she smelled it—crushed dandelions and sweet pickle brine. His scalp.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She’d never smelled his scalp before. Dried figs or dates. “I’m just so tired,” she said, and his hand on her thigh stopped moving, then after a few minutes he rolled away and she could hear the heavy breath of his sleep.
But Naomi was wide awake, her heart racing. She stretched her neck toward him and sniffed his scalp again. She got up from the air mattress and walked around the empty house, smelling old grease mixed with Ajax under the stove’s burners, the woody smell of closets, scorched carbon and ash at the fireplace. She opened the back door onto the night: the new smells a particular combination of laurel leaves, mulch, salty dew pushing in from the ocean (Pacific salt), and dozens of ferns and mosses and rotting stalks. These couldn’t be files from her olfactory memory bank.
Her nose was back.
A train whistled in the distance as she pushed the door closed, looking across the room at her husband asleep on the Aerobed. The smell of his scalp was a surprise—not what she’d imagined—and she wasn’t sure she liked it.
Excerpted from The Oregon Experiment by Keith Scribner. Copyright © 2012 by Keith Scribner. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.