“Hyperosmia” by Theo Greenblatt

Issue 14 / Summer 2018


The fish-laced ocean air is replaced by stale recycled musk as I mount the Greyhound steps and scan for an empty seat. Out the back window I catch a glint of sun on sea and the masts of sailboats in the harbor. There are no empty doubles. I take an aisle seat next to a middle-aged woman whose already closed eyes indicate that she won’t try to open a conversation with me. Her restaurant uniform smells of kitchen grease, and her hands, folded over the purse in her lap, are raw and puffy. As the bus lurches out of the station, all passengers lean involuntarily leftward and I brace myself against the prickly upholstery so as not to slide into her bare, sweaty arm. We turn into Water Street; past the hardware store, past the Starbucks, past the docks and the faded awning of the bar where I used to work. The bus heads toward Main and passes the side street where my grandmother and uncle lived; where I spent every summer until this one, in a mildew-speckled two-family house covered in brown and yellow asphalt shingles; more needed and more resentful each year as my grandmother aged. Up the broad, tree-lined hill we gather speed, exhaust spewing out behind past the chain-link fence of the cemetery. I am leaving for the last time.


The damp, fungal aroma of fresh-dug earth rises from the open grave where my grandmother’s coffin will soon be lowered. It’s a garden-like smell, a grandmotherly smell that mingles with the salty mist still burning off in the early morning sun. Dark-clad older people stand about, shifting from one leg to another, or mill slowly, looking for familiar faces with whom to share a nod or an unsmiling greeting. Heavy-soled shoes track the soft earth from the graveside onto the grass in little clods. Their eyes slide away from mine in either disapproval or disavowal; they don’t remember me or don’t want to. My uncle talks to everyone. He shakes hands and wipes his watery eyes with a soiled handkerchief. The priest, reeking of Ben-gay and hair oil, heaves himself alongside me, preparing to offer a condolence. My uncle approaches from the other side, breathing audibly. His hand moves with surreptitious authority to the damp small of my back, sending a shiver up my spine. I freeze, aware of the solid wall of mourners behind him.


The people who come to town by boat, you can smell them: coconut oil, gin and tonic, ocean salt. Even the ones who aren’t blonde seem blonde; even the pale, flabby, freckled bellies of the middle-aged men seem tanned and weathered when they talk about their boats. The girls have hair like corn silk, slippery pony-tailed fans spread across their copper shoulders. You can hear the smack of sails in a wind when you look at them, feel the prickle of rope running through your closed hand, a cold spray on your back. Their deck shoes slap the wooden dock as they trot towards their dinghies and untie them, pulling whole boats close with the expert jerk of a wrist, or letting them drift while they chatter and blink in the sun. They order their cocktails with the same easy disregard, tossing the tip money into the puddle of condensation left by their last drink, with their faces turned away. From behind the bar, I only know the boats by the scent of their owners.


The summer smell I know best is the attic smell, the smell of hot sun on dust that makes you sleepy, dust blurring your eyes and moving you to lie down just for a minute on the coarse upholstered sofa that no longer goes with the living room set. You close your eyes and feel the waves of dry heat move across you, not like a breeze but heavy, pressing, pressing you into a half-dream. With your eyes closed, the dust motes glow and swirl like fuzzy stars against the pinkish blue darkness. You feel like you’re swaying, even though you know the couch is solid; you have one bare foot on the splintery attic floor but your body is rising and falling and gusting slightly side to side and the brown smell takes you further into the dream. There, the attic sunlight turns molten, and you can forget to listen for a footfall on the splintery stairs.


My grandmother smells of whiskey and baby powder when she closes in, showing me the right way to pull a broadleaf weed; grasp it right where it meets the ground, gathering all the leaves into your fist and gripping tight with your thumb pointed down. This you have to watch; she doesn’t explain it. Pull hard, up and to one side, twisting your hand as you yank, and the whole root will come out. If you pull straight up, all you’ll get is a handful of bitter-smelling leaves. If you don’t get the root, the damn things just grow back. It seems to me they will grow back anyway. We crawl around the whole of her back yard on hands and knees, and the more weeds we pull, the more I see. We pile them onto an upside-down trashcan lid, which my grandmother drags along beside us. My t-shirt lies across my spine like a wet diaper; sweat trickles down my sides and drips onto the ground below me. When we finish, we sit on the back steps with a glass of lemonade, cold against my swollen, rust-colored palms. My knees are striped red and white with grass-shaped welts. The dead weeds have already wilted and the pile has shrunk; small bounty for so much work.


My uncle smells of whiskey, too, when he gets me out of bed at night. He takes me on his shoulders down the dark streets and into town. His hair is greasy on the sides of his head where I hang on, and I can see white flakes of dried skin on the bald patch where I rest my chin. The main street is lit up like daytime. There are people everywhere, like a party. You can smell the ocean and perfume and fried clams and ice cream. I usually get an ice cream cone when he takes me out but then I have to get down from his shoulders. In the crowd I can only see the bottom halves of people, pants with whales on them and swishy skirts and short-shorted packs of teenage girl legs, tanned and hairless. My uncle pours water on a napkin and wipes the chocolate from my hands before he lifts me back onto his shoulders for the walk home. You’re happy, now, arntcha, he always asks me. Who takes care of you best?


Theo Greenblatt’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, is featured or forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, Tikkun, Harvard Review, Pembroke Magazine, The Flexible Persona (Pushcart nomination), and numerous other venues. Her short story “Solitaire” won first place in the 2017 London Magazine Short Story Competition. She teaches writing to aspiring officer candidates at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, RI. Readers are invited to visit her web page at theogreenblatt.com


  1. Kara Provost

    Fantastic story, Theo – I love the vivid sensory imagery. Really brings me there, especially the images of boats and boat people and the dreamy scene in the attic in summer!

  2. Brie Quinby

    This is a wonderfully graphic story; I can smell and see along with you. Thanks! Brie


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