Posted by: Necci – Feb 28, 2012
It's weird how smells associate themselves with certain memories. I'm in the bike shop I work at, scrubbing my hands with Fast Orange. It's working off the layers of grease, and bike crud on my hands, and it's reminding me of working on my family's cars with my father at the same time. I hated doing that. He seemed capable only of dragging me out on days when it was 40 below zero. We'd be out there for hours, him working, the polar bears and I handing him wrenches. He also had (and still has) an uncanny knack for complicating even the simplest job. For some reason every oil change required that we disassemble half the car. He just liked to tinker. As he did, he'd explain, ad nauseum, every step of the process, what every nut, bolt, and obscure part did. I'd listen half-heartedly, usually finding some excuse to go inside for a few minutes. He'd keep working, and eventually, I'd feel guilty, don my parka, and head back outside.
My grandfather died a few weeks ago. He was my father's father. That's a weird thing too. I don't have as many smells with him. At least, I didn't until I started thinking about it. The first thing I was reminded of was the smell of Brut aftershave. He wore it, and it's musky, heavy scent would resonate in his absence, on your clothes after you'd hugged him. By the time I was interested in impressing girls, I was also under the impression that girls only liked guys that wore cologne. I bought a bottle of Brut. It lasted me over a year, I wore it everyday I remembered to put it on. I remember not being able to visit that summer, because I'd taken a residential position at a Boy Scout Camp as a counselor. I'm pretty sure I left the bottle of Brut there.
His funeral was towards the end of a week that I'd spent as a nervous wreck. The last eight months or so, my anxiety has pinned me into a pace that makes me scared to travel a lot the time. My stomach hurt all week. My face burned from bouts of silent crying. I'd cried so hard in my car, the day I'd found out, that I had to pull over. I called my dad, and he consoled me, and after a good forty minutes, I was able to drive home. The week was horrible; a cloud of failure, self doubt, and mourning hung over me. I buried myself in my work, neglecting to mention to any of my bosses what had happened. I didn't want people to know. I spent hours riding my bike as well, something that's become a source of renewal for me. As my years in Richmond passed, I, like many, developed a love for cycling. I've moved from a 250lb non-athletic person to a serious cyclist, riding with VCU's cycling team, and with friends every day. Cycling makes me calm down, and while I could write paragraphs about the positive effects it has on my mental health and anxiety, it really is as easy as saying it makes me feel like everything will be okay. That's enough for me. I called my dad a few more times during the week, and he calmed me every time, even though I should have been the one comforting him. It was selfish.
I hate the way Fast Orange makes my hands feel. It dries out your skin like crazy. When I was younger, I insisted on using some when my dad and I finished the car. My hands were never dirty, but he'd oblige anyway, and I'd feel warm and hazy, the way one does after being in the cold all day. The garage would be smothered in the chemical citrus scent as we cleaned up before dinner. It was the only part I really liked doing. Although I never really did any of the work, I'd still feel accomplished, like my dad and I had shared some bonding experience, which in those days was rare. I was wrapped up in punk rock, and generally being kind of a prick. He tolerated it, still giving me those small opportunities to feel both justified and taken care of.
I didn't go to the funeral. I'd worn myself down worrying so much in the preceding week that I caught a bug and spent a few days in bed. I can't deny the fact, however, that part of my illness was bred from mental weakness. I was scared to travel. I was scared to watch my father bury his dad. My dad and I talked on the phone more, and I agreed to come home and visit when they got back from the funeral. I barely got out of bed. I cried. I played Xbox and tried to honor my grandfather in my thoughts, but in reality, none of that was any good. I'd let my father down in a time when I knew he'd needed my support and help. I wasn't there for him. Everyday at the bike shop, washing my hands would bring fresh pang of guilt. I'd think of how my dad gladly spent hours of his hard-earned weekend in the cold, fixing my car, when he could have left me hanging, told me to figure it out. He was always there for me, something I hardly appreciated at the time.
My grandfather was too, in ways I don't think I'd ever really recognized. We never talked a lot. I don't think we'd ever needed to. He was just always there, reliable, a strong and good role model. My father was the one who'd told me about his life. The things his father had done for him. I'd always been too timid to ask my granddad for myself. He was a formidable man--strong, stern, and moral. More so, I felt like there'd always be more time for us to talk. I became self-centered, focused on college, my writing, establishing myself, and I stopped paying as much attention to everyone else. Nonetheless, despite my selfishness, my grandfather was always there. On my drive to my parents after they'd returned from the funeral, I cried again, anxious to face my father, and out of mourning. It was a weird drive.
A couple of weeks after the funeral, my aunt posted a photo on Facebook of a clipping from some text that she had found in my grandfather's wallet. In a few paragraphs, it explained that both yesterday, with its regrets, and tomorrow with its worries and problems, belonged to God. I'm not religious, but I can identify with worrying about tomorrow, and recently, with the regrets of yesterday. The final paragraph read, “There is left, then, for myself but one day in the week--today. Any man can fight the battles of today.” I guess my grandfather and I had more in common than I thought.
When I visited my family, I calmed down. We talked, and shed more tears. My mom told me a few stories about my grandfather. They told me about the service, how my cousins were doing. My dad, in an amazing act of foresight, fatherly instinct, or forgiveness, gave me one of the best gifts he''s ever given; a rusted old 1970's Schwinn covered in cobwebs and cat piss. It had been his daily commuter bike for years, and it had been something that he and his father had worked on and maintained together. As I looked it over, he told me stories about things his father had done to make the bike better for his son. My father asked me to restore it for him. I drove home late that night, the bike in my backseat, filling my car with a musty, greasy smell.
The restoration was a beast, and a pain in the ass. It took fifteen hours, a roll of paper towels, a tube of grease, and four busted knuckles. I worked with a vigor I rarely feel, and for the first time in many days, I felt okay. A calm came over me as I repacked the headset bearings. My dad had given me a chance at forgiveness, and a chance to both honor and mourn my grandfather in the same instant in a way that was intimate and tangible. I was maintaining something that had been loved and cared for by three generations of men in my family. I'm one of two to carry on my last name. As I cleaned and ran cables and housings, I began to hope the Schwinn would carry on too.
It's weird how smells bring back certain memories. The citrus stink of Fast Orange; reminding me of my father's dogged labors on my car, and of my labors on a new family heirloom. It reminds me of my father's beneficence, in the same way that I'm sure things I don't even know about trigger my father into remembering his own. Every time I wash my hands at work now, I get a chance to stop and breathe, and thank those that came before. Those who carried me to where I am now. I think about how my dad is dealing with everything--his own age, his sadness. I hope, like me, he's learning about the simple calm and beauty a bike can bring. Maybe every once in a while he hops on the Schwinn and pedals around the neighborhood, finding new smells to associate with better memories, contentment. When I visit now, I always poke my head into the garage to check on the bike, pump its tires, run my hand along the sunburnt orange top tube. I catch whiffs of Fast Orange and feel better.
Dedicated to Charlie R. Moffitt II
By James Moffitt