Smoke and Spice

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The broad-shouldered guy with the widow’s peak (which he liked to hide under a baseball cap) didn’t think he liked selling things. He wasn’t a natural when he was a youth working retail, and if he hadn’t a pressing need of more money he would never have called about this sales job. And then said, “Yes, I can start immediately.” But so far he had been stationed in the music section of the store and that made it much more than tolerable. He had feared it would end up being all books, the main commodity. A lucky break.

Herbert “Heb” Taylor originally studied, worked and plotted to become a self-supporting musician. He did passably well financially if one counted private parties, charity galas, wedding receptions, church solos, and a three-year gig at a neighborhood bar Thursday nights. He had strong, nimble hands for keyboard and he could sing well enough that people asked–no, demanded–to hear more. But college (nearly a B.S., biology major) needed more critical attention. Then a detour to the Air Force. War. More war. Eventually back home and there was his parents’ split to cope with, not to mention his own radically changed view of the world. Of everyday things. People. Heb found work in a small biotech company and hunkered down in his cubicle, becoming fruitful if underpaid. Perhaps he was content some days.

It got harder to get back to making pure auditory pleasure his goal. Because that is what music was for him: happy gifts delivered via ear. Oh, he had heard people philosophize about making a connection to some higher power, or creative labor that contributed to the betterment of humanity but, frankly, he didn’t go that far. Maybe he had just forgotten. He certainly heard less distinctly since flying and, well, the rest. His playing was recalled as one does a time of life when things were simpler, safer, brighter.

Heb sometimes sat at the upright piano he’d picked up for his cabin at the edge of town. Ran his fingers over the white and black keys and let tuneful turns of his fingertips just happen. Since his neighbors were a distance from him–his place wasn’t quite waterfront, nor as accessible–Heb could have left the door and windows open and banged away. But rarely was he so moved. It was the briefest giddy jig or a melancholy trail of notes descending until, defeated by a lack of enthusiasm, he let a last note slip into silence.

Well, that was what becoming an adult had brought. Once he had had a good time, now he had memories that haunted him and bills to pay and decent work to do. He took the week-end sales job because extra cash would help pay off a boat he had impulsively purchased. He’d also decided to do some travelling after the New Year, go to Wisconsin to see his parents. Maybe visit an old Air Force buddy.

Truth be told, he liked staying very busy.

Selling music came more easily than expected. He fielded questions with a smile, offered suggestions, detailed esoteric differences within genres, led them to CDs for their heart’s desires. Or created a desire for something they didn’t know they wanted. Heb’s native love for and acquired knowledge of music was enough to make the job yield good results for business and himself. His supervisor hinted there might be a full-time position in the next few months; he declined with sincere thanks.

One afternoon when there was a lull he took a swipe at dusty albums in the world music section. There were five people milling about, all absorbed in their searches and sample listening. Heb stopped to check out the Portuguese and then South American sections and pulled out a Brazilian album. He was overcome with a desire to be languishing on a tropical beach. He closed his eyes a moment to better zoom in on glittering sand and turquoise sea. He smelled a salt-laden breeze, admired bronzed skin, noted a bright flower adorning the ear of a woman running toward water’s edge. Then there was another scent, something woodsy. No, smokey, delicate yet distinctive, soft and pungent, lingering in his nostrils. What sort of wood emitted such smoke? Right behind it wafted a cinnamon-spicey fragrance. He opened his eyes and nodded at a couple of punky kids who passed. Blinked, trying to shake off the olfactory spell as he noticed a lanky customer gripping a few CDs.

“Sorry, just thinking,” Heb mumbled, then brightened. “How can I help you?”

“Ah, music does that to me, too! No prob! Just need to buy these, Herb, can’t sneak them out.”

Heb didn’t correct him. It was a common error even though it was clear on the name tag. They headed to the register.

After the purchase was made, Heb caught the evocative scent in the air again and he wondered if he should be alarmed. Fire? He scanned the store. No one was concerned. His customers kept drifting in, chatting among themselves.

“Sir? The amazing Ms. Miranda Lambert? Where?”

He’d almost saluted when he heard the “sir”, then nodded at her congenially. Maybe he looked older than thirty-seven. His one bathroom mirror stayed fogged up after a shower so he just pulled a comb through his short hair. In his car he checked in the visor mirror to make sure there was no leftover shave cream or nicks. Age stopped meaning anything when he was flying. Risking everything.

The country-loving woman hoisted a toddler on a hip. Heb led the way and showed her where the artist was. Behind him were three people clogging an aisle, an older guy with his grandson and a younger woman lugging along an overstuffed leather bag as she flipped through cases. Heb edged away but spicy tendrils of scent prickled his nostrils. He looked back at the customers. Heb thought of favorite pies of his past. Maybe he’d try baking one and invite Kevin from work (and his wife?) over. He tried to smell less.

What was going on? He couldn’t start sniffing around the store. It was true he had a sensitive nose; he got it from his mother. After the tours of duty he worried his sense of smell wouldn’t return. Or better put, return whole and correct. He smelled things, often at odd times, but not those he cared to remember. Then he moved from the city to his cabin in the woods. Things began to straighten out. He noticed all his senses worked better in an open space created by natural elements. Nothing felt irrevocably damaged out there. Or, much less often.

Now the woodsy smoke and cinnamon or nutmeg– what was it?–were so strong they were driving him a little nuts. These were two of his favorites. How could they not be? One meant warmth for skin and bones and another flavored food for belly–and both soothed the soul. It made Heb think of jazz piano played before a glowing hearth, a hot mulled cider with cinnamon stick in hand. Or pure, deep rest. It made him drowsy thinking of it.

“Yessir, got my country gal. What’s your liking?”

The lady with the fussy kid. Was she flirting with him? Heb took her CD and rang it up.

“A little bit of everything. I am democratic, even indiscriminate at times, I’m afraid. Thanks for coming in. Enjoy.”

The woman shook her head, maybe to shake out her tight curls, or get his attention. Or indicate she didn’t get what he’d said.

She stared at his name tag. “H-E-B. Okay, Heb! Later?”

He stood idle a few minutes. Smoothed his forehead to help clear himself of distractions. The smoke and spice slowly dissipated. He tried to think who all had been present, what they looked like, and who had left already but it struck him as a strange thing to be doing. They were strangers and he was just a sales associate at a store. What would they think if he did follow it–followed them–til he found the source? His boss would be called over and for very good reason.

The next Saturday after work, as the sunset dimmed its burnished beauty, Heb found himself at the keyboard. He’d thought of getting the piano tuned up–it was painful tapping three soured keys–but his hands fell upon each note without judgment. He ran up and down scales, sought out major and minor chords. Found a light-hearted melody hiding among them and followed it around a winding path and back home again. A space inside him opened and songs Heb used to play flew up and out, landing on his fingertips. He felt gently possessed of them, then usurped by their command. And gave in long as he could. It was a joy, a relief but it also felt like a new problem.

The darkness knotted itself about his cabin. Heb’s hands gave out. Better to not let that happen again. It stirred things up. He felt himself long for sleep. He got kindling and logs, lit a fire in the wood stove. The roar of his thoughts took over, a return of warrior cries and plane engines faltering, guns and wounds and eyes that you once could read rendered blind with fear, covered with death. He put his feet as close to the stove as he could and leaned back in the rocker and looked for something good inside his head.

On Sunday morning, the store was busier than usual. The jump on Veteran’s Day: sales. He found it strange and terrible that this could be a reason for increasing commerce. He thought he’d get a couple questions about whether or not he’d served; that’s how people were. Nosey. And he’d have to answer something. It would depend on who was asking.

It was close to his lunch hour when he realized he had sold twenty-six albums in under four hours and people were still queuing up. He had help this time, a wispy girl with a friendly manner who determined right off he was a vet. Heb circulated around the edges, on the look-out for anyone with sticky fingers, finding CDs left in wrong places and refiling them, picking up the odd glove or stray receipt. There, at position on the carpet where he was snatching gum wrappers he caught the scents. The mixture of wood on fire with cinnamon laced with something spicier. Maybe even pepper. Or pine. It was getting harder to sort out by the second. Heb hadn’t noticed the complexity before. He looked up.

Three feet away, by the end of the display case, stood a woman who might have burst out of an ad for riding boots–hers were that expensive. From her ear lobes hung a pair of golden oak leaf earrings. A red cape hid her arms and two-thirds of her torso.

“So, Herb without the ‘r’, tell me about jazz pianists.”

He stood too fast, the blood seeping away from his brain.

“Marian McPartland? Bill Evans? Shall I go on? Is that what you mean?”

“Why you have so few.” Her cropped platinum hair stuck up on top, as if she had worn a hat in. “And not one of mine.” She clasped her hands in front of her, which made her look less irritated, more earnest. “Although I’m more of a vocalist than pianist, if I’m honest.” She said this as an aside.

“Ah.”

Heb took a step back so he could take her in better. She had a big enough presence but there was that unusual smoke and cinnamon thing. Finally. Up close it was like a cross between a quick shake and a long hug. And she looked familiar.

“I know I should know who you are…but I confess, I don’t.”

She laughed loudly, mouth wide open, but ended on a light note. “Not exactly famous–yet! I’m Analise Mars.”

Heb had seen her name but he was wondering about that perfume she was wearing. His hyper awareness was embarrassing but he kept pace. “Oh, the top billed act at the new place, Travertine/One Degree.”

“And others,” she said as if to herself as she looked past him. “Well, not a fan, I gather. No matter. I was just checking how many of my albums you’re carrying. It’s discouraging the count is zero.” She sighed a wilting sound.

He was riveted. How could one not be? She was nearly as tall as he, her face was vivid, animated. Eyes that sparked when she laughed. He waited to hear what was next, breathing deeply but discreetly as possible, when she turned, cape circling out from her body. And left.

It wasn’t easy for her to disappear in a crowd between her white-blonde crazy hair and red cape. He could have spotted her in the night rain at two hundred yards. She exited the store. Heb felt a wince of disappointment. He wondered how many times she had been there and slipped away. At least three. How did he miss that? Why did she keep coming back?

A customer with a small dog held tightly in his arms flagged him down. Heb was officially on lunch hour so referred him to his sales associate. Though he thought the dog clever, sliding out of the person’s arms, in search of something more, following his nose.

After a sandwich and a coffee, he sat watching skaters glide around the ice rink, wondering if he should get a dog, himself. He had lived alone in the cabin a few years and all he had were small bugs and beasts and trees and his own company. Oh, there were a couple of friends from work who stopped by. But he had been thinking about a hunting dog, maybe a beagle.

Analise plopped down in the chair opposite him just as he took a deep quaff.

“Me, a happy buzzing bee! Yet your attention is so hard to capture you may as well be a stone in a river, not a flower in the meadow.”

“What?” He chortled despite the coffee and a little dribbled out the side of his mouth. “Did you really say that?”

She clamped her arms in front of her chest. “Too many old standards sung, you know? The ole metaphors just grab hold and make themselves part of my vocabulary. Besides, I compare everything to something else. It’s a hazard of being a songwriter.”

“I see that.” He wiped his lips and chin. “But what do you mean?”

She raised her already-arched eyebrows. “It means I have been in your store four times the last couple weeks and you haven’t noticed me until I nearly stepped on you today.”

“Flattering. I think. Not entirely true. But why?”

“I know your friend at work. Kevin Harris. Brother-in-law. He says you’re a pianist. Not that I don’t already know plenty of musicians, but he said you had a great ear for jazz. But don’t play much. That can happen to us all… So I thought I’d introduce myself and see when we can jam a bit. Shake things out.”

It was as if someone turned on the floodlights. He heard her loud and clear. Even though she was more or less some zany stranger, he believed her. It made the sort of uncommon good sense he’d been missing in his life. He needed music. She made music. He was too alone, too introspective. She was welcoming, open, offering a connection to…maybe friendship, if he could bear to hope for so much.

He felt fear creep in but smiled back.

“Kevin,” he repeated, “he’s my cube mate. Look, I haven’t played in years. Other things have taken up time and energy. I just have a battered upright, needs tuning.”

Analise was smiling. She reached out her hand and patted his. “Good. Let’s get started. How about Wednesday evening? Just a couple of hours? Where do you live? Or would you rather come to my place? I do have a scarred, resonant baby grand.”

“Wait. Wait a minute. I don’t know. I have to get back to work. Let me think it over.”

“Yeah, check it out with Kevin. Okay, Herb without the ‘r’. Sorry. Heb. I like it. Heb Taylor! Good musician’s name, right?”

She got up and her cape got up with her and they started to twirl away.

“Wait, Analise. One question. You wear a distinctive perfume…smokey with cinnamon. I smelled it the first time you came around, I guess. Can I ask what that is?” He didn’t want say “spicy”. It might put her off when he was truly curious.

Analise came back grinning, hands on hips. “Perfume? Don’t care for it. I use cedar in my fireplace which heats much of my apartment so there might be a smokiness that pervades my very being. Apropos for a jazz singer, yes? Or maybe it’s you–you smell like old-cabin-with-woodstove. Cinnamon? Hmmm. Do I bake? Not often. Well, Heb, I’ll have to think about that and get back to you. At our jam fest. ”

Heb watched the ruby-red coat streak through the crowd. He finished his coffee; he had a good many hours to work. It wasn’t his fireplace that got to burn sweet, pungent cedar, no. His stove burned hard, durable oak down to the last little ember. Down to a dank, cooled rubble of ashes. The thought stayed with him, bittersweet.

Maybe he should get a dog. It was possible he would tell Analise to come by some Wednesday night. But he knew for certain he was getting the upright tuned. Then he would open the windows and door a little. And just play.

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