Kallan sits beside me and chews her newly-purchased gum as we drive home from the grocery store. She is quiet for a few chomps as the air fills with the scent of rubbery sugarless sweetness, but then, “We sure had to wait a long time at the DMV this morning.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“It’s alright.” Kallan reaches to turn the volume of the radio up as high as I will allow (much higher than is possible when her sister is in the car), and she sings happily into the noise, bouncing and swaying and dancing as we go. I let the music and the happiness and the scent of her gum wash over me as I wend our way through the tree-lined streets of Lake Oswego.
My mind wanders back to a man we saw at the DMV during our lengthy visit. A huge pale man, hundreds of pounds overweight, dressed in a billowing Hawaiian shirt and a pair of shorts. He had an assistant with him, a small dark-haired woman to whom he did not appear to be related, and I couldn’t help but wonder if part of her job had been to dress him for this outing; his arms and legs did not appear to be of the sort that bent and curved themselves into clothing without assistance. The small dark-haired woman held his paperwork and arranged for him to be taken ahead of the line, a bit of advantage no one in the impatient crowded room challenged.
As he shuffled across the room, his unbending legs were angled out and away from his body, as though the weight of his torso had forced them apart into a wider bracing triangle of support. He wore bright white brand-new gym shoes, their laces removed and their mouths opened to accept his sockless feet, which disappeared from view at the end of his bare lower legs. My impression was that he had no feet at all, the ends of his tree-stump legs just shoved into gym shoes for appearance’s sake.
His legs were a different color than the rest of him; his arms and face were pale, but his legs were mottled dark red and purple. Twin supports of bruise, they appeared to be suffering great injury from within, as though something inside of the man had sunk to his lower extremities and was now pressing insistently for release. The skin was shiny and taut and papery looking all at once, clearly stretched beyond its limits and not up to the task of containment that was being asked of it.
A multitude of sores dotted his legs where the skin had given way, the apparently messier and deeper ones covered with Band-Aids of the sort I put on the girls when they scrape a knee or an elbow. I imagined the small Band-Aids had been purchased and applied specifically for this outing, the hope being that they would camouflage the worst of the gore. The result was laughable and horrific at once; the tiny flesh-colored Band-Aids shone in garish neutral counterpoint to the man’s purples and reds, and liquids seeped from beneath every adhesive strip, running down his legs like tears. His legs were bursting like rotten fruit, a few small bits of tape holding back a deluge of decay.
He was not an old man, perhaps 50.
The girls and I stood there and discussed (for the thousandth time) how slow the employees at the DMV were (as if they were practicing to be captured in thick rolling amber) and how many people were ahead of us (about a zillion) and what our number was (85) and what number was being served right now (71) and how much longer this was going to take (about an hour) and how long we had already been here (about 90 minutes) and what number they had been serving when we arrived (43) and why we had to be here at all (because I promised their daddy I would take them to get state-issued photo-IDs so that they can open bank accounts and then right after I promised to do this task their daddy got all smart-assy about how I tend to put off annoying and unpleasant tasks and so here we were) and what number was being served now (71 still) and then the three of us agreed (again) that we hated the DMV and all of its devil-minion employees and why did the girls need photo-IDs for bank accounts anyway because couldn’t their parents simply vouche for their identity and then we agreed we were hungry and thirsty and also we all had to go the bathroom and we were so bored we would maybe die from the boredom, and then the enormous man walked past us in excruciatingly labored fashion, and the air filled with the scent of him.
The man walked past us and the air filled with the scent of him.
The scent of urine and sweat and decay and despair and fear and loneliness all filtered through the truth of severe diabetes . . . the result a heady cloying fragrance of strawberries. Not just any strawberries . . . my mind immediately recalled the taste and smell of freeze-dried strawberries pressed against the roof of my mouth as my saliva worked to reconstitute them. That sharp tangy almost-citrusy sensation as the strawberries bloomed to life from death in my mouth – that’s what this man smelled like.
That’s what this man smelled like.
My mouth filled with saliva as I breathed the air of him, the remembered citrus sharpness sending my salivary glands into overdrive.
Just as now, in the car, with Kallan, my salivary glands are working to fill my mouth with spit. I am taken aback by how strong my memories of this man and his scent are; it feels as though he is right here in the car with us. I take a moment to try to figure out why I am even thinking about this man at all; he is no one to me. I take a deep breath and try to shake the memory, but the man is right here.
I take another breath and then reach to turn down the radio, “Hey, Kallan?”
“What sort of gum is that?”
She holds it up, “Trident Layers.” She reads from the package as she snaps at the piece she has in her mouth, “With wild strawberry and tangy citrus,” and then turns to me, “Why?”
“Umm, because it smells exactly like the man at the DMV this morning, and I do mean exactly.”
Kallan chews a few more times, inhales deeply, and then her face crumples in horror, “Oh, it does! It smells exactly like that man.”
She takes the gum from her mouth and wraps it in a piece of paper, “Why did he smell like that? AUGH! I feel like I have been chewing on his arm-chub!”
I explain a bit about diabetes.
Kallan speaks softly, “Poor him. I just thought he smelled like oozy fear.”
Anyone want an almost new package of oozy-fear gum?