Something Botanical, With a Hint of Exotic Wood

By Martin Brick

 

 

He spills into the booth, tired as hell and bored as hell.  Eight hours of I-80.  Another six ahead, so the point to the truck stop is rejuvenation.  The faded ocher-orange color scheme, though, challenges this goal.  It’s like a first-generation color photograph that got left on the dashboard and said the hell with this fight, the sun can have my hues.  This wasn’t the kind of place to keep you awake, even when the redheaded, cornfed waitress begins pouring your black coffee at the same time she’s asking if you want it.  She’s got squinty, vaguely sexy eyes.  She’s Renee Zellweger with a few more pounds, and lives in a trailer and owns dolphin-related artwork.  The booth is oddly comfortable, probably simply because it is shaped differently than the seat of a Honda.

 

There’s a book, a paperback novel, on the table, tucked back by the napkins and salt and pepper.  Our driver picks it up and finds page three – which is the start.  Guess page one is the title page.  It’s about World War I and a zeppelin captain and a milky-skinned burlesque dancer named Saffron – actually a spy for the French.  Within minutes sleepiness is something completely forgotten.  The waitress brings a cheese and mushroom omelet, his standard, so he must have ordered.  His short-term memory doesn’t recall.  Just the novel.  And it’s not just the story that has hooked him, though it does possess an engaging opening.  Something about the book makes him associate its true owner – whoever left it in the booth – with Saffron.  Then he considers, it might be olfactory.  He pulls the pages to his nose.  Pretty sure there is a note of perfume there, something botanical with a hint of exotic wood, he thinks, but that might be entirely his imagination.

 

“Who was here?” he asks the waitress.  “Before me,” he clarifies.  “Someone left a book.”

 

“My shift just started.  I don’t hardly know.”

 

Any other person would have left the book, figuring its owner to be local, someone coming back for it.  But he places it on the passenger seat.  The scent bothers him as he drives.  Lilac maybe?  Cedar or sandalwood in there?  He sniffs while he drives, and wants to read, really contemplates propping the book up on the steering wheel while the cruise control does most of the work.  Why not?  He’s seen people handling Oprah picks or C++ manuals in rush hour traffic.

 

The zeppelin captain and Saffron both chain-smoke.  The captain constantly lights cigarettes for the dancer.  He snaps wooden matches with his thumb.  This makes the driver crave cigarettes, though it’s been years since he’s smoked.

 

At the next gas station he finds a pack of cigarettes already lying on the counter.

 

“I need a pack of… that brand.”  It’s an old brand.  The kind you’ve seen in old movies and in paintings.

 

“Have these,” says the young, long hair, in-a-jam-band clerk.  “They’re paid for, but the woman went to the bathroom or whatever and forgot them.”

 

“Woman?”

 

“Reddish hair.  Skin like milk.”

 

“Like milk?”

 

“The Dairy Council would wholeheartedly approve.”

 

“I’m pretty sure these are for me, then.”

 

Back on boring I-80, he’s got the paperback propped up on the steering wheel as he plods west.  In the story, Saffron suffers a bout of public scrutiny, as word circulates that she is half French – mother’s side – and therefore probably a spy.  There is a chain of associations that threads back to a French Intelligence Officer.  This Intelligence Officer has a penchant for smoking very slowly and deliberately.  Part of his job is projecting confidence – to his underlings, to the agents in the field, to captured Germans he interrogates.  The French IO makes his slow smoldering cigarette a visual metaphor for life, without saying such in as many words.  Every time he does this, our driver feels the twinge to light up.

 

And every time he lights up he thinks immediately of Saffron, even though she’s rarely on the page before him.  They must be connected, our driver believes.  A calculus of cigarettes – something beautifully subliminal that the author managed to get in there.

 

He doesn’t see it happen, but then again, no one ever sees it happen.  His eyes are on the page at the moment of impact, “prospect” being the last word his retinas focus upon.  Then everything begins spinning.  He swears he had just checked to road a pale second before, sure that he was firmly in his own lane, straight and narrow, at a reasonable speed, but the second the spinning began he has to wonder, did I drift?  Did I hit something or did something hit me?

 

The spinning registers long before the sound of impact.  In fact, he wonders if the sound registered at all.  He remembers it, but in the way you remember dreams.  That, did it happen like that, or am I filling in? feeling.  Was that my parent’s house in the dream, or do I just think that now?  Was that really color, or is my conscious mind patching up the black and white?

 

Pretty soon after, he doesn’t see anything.  Vision left without pain.  He felt the jolt.  There was spinning and suddenly there wasn’t.  Somewhere around then, sight failed, but unlike films, he remembers no sudden blackout or flash of white.

 

And it seems like people talk to him instantly.  Asking his name, the date, who is president – those paramedic questions.  So probably some time lost there.

 

“I can’t see,” he tells them.

 

“Probably best,” comes an under-the-breath remark he heard clear as day, then a full-voiced, “You’ve been in an accident.  We’re taking you to the hospital.”

 

It’s a female voice.

 

He senses the presence of her body right over him, maybe just speaking, maybe checking bandages or IV lines.  But he very distinctly smells her.  He honestly didn’t even process the voice as female, at first, but the scent, it is something botanical, with a hint of exotic wood.

 

“I have your book.”

 

“BP’s dropping,” and he’s feeling cold…  “What book would that be?”

 

“The one.  The one you’ve lost.”

 

“I’ve lost a lot of books in my life.”

 

He laughs.  It’s a laugh he feels, his facial muscles taking shape reluctantly, the smile pushed out of clay.  “You ever find one?” he asks.  “It feels good.”

 

 

 

 

Martin Brick is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in British Literature at Marquette University.  Recent publications include stories in Vestal Review, Sou’wester, RE:AL, Pindeldyboz, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Fox Cry Review, The Shore, The Orphan Leaf Review, The Circle, and other places.  He is a former editor of Wisconsin Review and a past Pushcart Prize nominee.

 

 

Published on January 4, 2009 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  

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