The Smell Is the Same

The Smell Is the Same

A Story by Joel McCarthy



     "Where did the scars come from?" Stanley asks, running a finger along her leg, along the hardened dots of skin that look like some kind of constellation. "These looks nuts, like you got abducted by aliens and they left you with this weird pattern. You been abducted?" He grins.

     "No," she says, shooing him away.

     "Well where'd they come from?"

     She doesn't answer, seems to look through him at something beyond the window pane. 

     "You don't want to say?" 

     "Not really."



     "We all have scars."

     "How profound," she says.                                    

     "I mean, guys like me do. Jews."

     She laughs at this. "Like historically speaking? Scars from your unfortunate past? From Germany? Egypt?"

     "Like real scars. Scars on our c***s. You see?" He shows her.

     "I don't need a diagram, thanks."

     "Do you know what happens when the Moyle cuts it off?" he says.

     "Crying and bleeding, I would assume."

     "Well, yeah. But most times, after that, the baby goes into shock from the pain. You lose a fair amount of skin. You lose a lot of nerves. My uncle was a Moyle." 

     "Did your uncle... never mind."

     He lay back on the bed, reaching for a box of animal crackers, her crackers. "I always wondered about guys who weren't cut. If like the sex was better for them with all those nerves they still have."

     Molly sits up, searching for her bra. "I was with one guy who wasn't."

     "Oh yeah?"

     "His parents were Russian. He was handsome, tall, not good in bed."

     "Was it because he wasn't clipped?"

     "No, that didn't bother me. He just couldn't last very long. He'd always leave right after coming.”

     "Really? Well, guess I have been missing out."

     "He was young, though. This was high school. That was a long time ago."

     Stanley clicks his tongue, pops in another cookie, and his chewing annoys Molly probably more than it should.

     "Did he have anything to do with the scars?" he asks after a while.

     She stands up, heading for the bathroom. "No. He liked cars. Maybe he works at a dealership. Maybe he's a mechanic now."

     She closes the bathroom door. Stanley hears the tap open, the scrubbing of a toothbrush, wondering why she always seems to brush her teeth in solitude.

     "Are we doing breakfast?" he asks the closed door.

     She spits. "No. I have to visit my sister."

     "You have a sister?"


     "When will you be back?"

     "When I'm back," she says.

     He hears the shower turn on and so he buckles his belt and retrieves car keys from the empty candy dish near the front door.

     "You sure you're not an alien?" he mumbles, leaving, making sure nothing is left behind.


     Molly isn't concerned if Stanley comes around again and she never felt much for him to begin with. From the first night it was as though they were on different wavelengths. He talks when she wants to think and he lays indifferent when she feels like talking. He chews his nails, rat-like, but is fashionable, upbeat, the kind most women search the dial for, women who aren't her. She is somewhere else, lost, perhaps sandwiched between two frequencies battling for clarity. This dawned on Molly after their first night together. Now, at the end of the fifth, she hopes he realizes it.

     Molly takes an Ambien that she finds in her purse, a souvenir from over a year ago. It is the last of an all but extinct prescription that she'd received from Dr. Gillespie, a therapist Molly ditched after quitting her job at a now defunct hair salon. It sticks in her throat and she swallows water from the tap until that feeling goes away. She wants the way she is currently feeling to go away. The pill doesn't bring sleep like she wants. It instead starts to expand on something that was brought up earlier by Stanley.      

     She wants to get out of the city today. She merges westbound on the expressway, leaving the phallic skyline in her mirror. There are more cars on the road than she prefers. It is Sunday, late morning, a day and a time when most non residences attempt an escape from the smog. She knows the traffic will let up when she gets where she is going.

     Her excuse to Stanley was a lie. She has no sister and she doesn't know why she made one up for him. It was enough to get him away, enough so that she could be alone today, on the road. Today seems like the day to do it, and she can't exactly explain that, either.

     It could have been Stanley and his asking of her scars. It is very plausible. But she thinks probably that today is the anniversary of something known only to the cosmos, though not connected to the date or digital clock on the car stereo. It is like a mood, an outlying urge, a phantom limb calling her from 100 Kilometres west. She wonders, smiling, if Stanley and the other clipped men of the world feel a similar calling for their discarded foreskins. Of course, she knows this isn't the same. This is something that belongs only to her.    

     Her father worked hard days and slept much less than he should have. He was a quarryman, and that was all that was there to define him. He didn't enjoy discussing the work at home, but somehow never seemed to cease working. His hands were small and always dry, always hard. Molly's hands are the same minus a few less calluses, plus the faint aroma of coconut moisturizer.

     Her mother delivered mail in a small brown sedan packed to its felt ceilings each morning with other people's business. She kept a handful of hard candy in the cup holder, and on days when Molly stayed home from school because of snow or holiday, she would help with the route, picking away at the cup holder until only gold wrappers remained. Her mother had strawberry blonde hair that she'd given to Molly, though no one in the city knows this.

     Molly arrives off a gravel road. The property looks almost as she remembered, but smaller, the huge satellite dish at the side of the house missing. The apple tree in the front yard is gone. She wonders if the new owners uprooted it because of the wasps that congregated over its fallen braeburns during late summer.

     She doesn't know these people and doesn't care about them. She doesn't consider the house theirs, even now, despite what any legal documents say to the contrary. It will always belong to her.

     The mailbox is perched at the end of the long gravel driveway. There are no cars parked here except Molly's blue Toyota. She can see junk mail pouring out of the box's mouth, and she picks up a flyer advertising a sale that ended yesterday. The mail has been collecting for at least a few days, she thinks. Maybe they are on vacation, maybe just visiting someone out of town. Somehow, this doesn't surprise her.

     Molly's first instinct is to go around the side of the garage where there is a door. It is the door she would use after staying out too late, a door that never squeaked, and it never woke her parents. It is the door that allowed her to go out into the blackness of the property at night, sprawling and silent, coyotes rambling in the distance, some closer than others. She never felt scared in the darkness. To her it always seemed an extension of the house itself.

     It squeaks now, but is open, unlocked, and the smell of the garage is there and reeking of memory despite being filled with whatever foreign objects the owners have left there now. She waits in the mouth of the darkened space and listens. 

     Maybe this was far enough. Maybe it was fun to drive out here and be alone for a while, but now things are getting heavier, uncontrollable. The smell. The smell is the same. A little further.

     The light switch is not on the wall to her right like she remembers, so she takes a few steps forward, something brushing her face. It is a length of dangling string that she pulls, and the garage is suddenly illuminated.

     It looks similar, but cleaner. The floors have been painted, but there is still no drywall, which has preserved the smell of moist concrete, settled dust, the smell of the past. Perhaps it is just the Ambien, she thinks, but doubts it. There is no car here. This takes her inside.

     She enters the living room, shoes wiped but left on, and it is all wrong. Nothing is placed the same. The walls are yellow, not forest green, and have been hijacked by floral patterns that clash for dominance of the space with leopard print lampshades, a cream chesterfield, orange throw pillows. The carpet is gone, transmogrified into faux hardwood, the smell of pine cleaner and plug in air fresheners.

     She is on her guard as she walks through the place, checking over her shoulder often, the worry increasing, reality closing in.

     The bathroom yields more panic. She’d hoped to see the aquatic wallpaper lining the upper crest of the walls with its purple and turquoise shells fanning out like a peacock’s tail and seeming to dance with the flickering vanity bulbs around the mirror. Everything is gone now, moved away, torn out of existence. And she yearns to see those animated shells, and she knows now that the house itself is a shell, one with its meat and significance ripped out, discarded. But is it really?

     The basement is where she needs to go. Judging by the state of the garage, she believes the new inhabitants have left it the way it was then, the way it should be left forever. The door leading to the basement is closed, but behind it is hope, maybe some justification as to why she has come.

     Her descent down there brings more of the smell, and it is so much more here, filling her head with fragmented memories she thought long forgotten. Could it be left untouched? If she flicks the light on, will it all be there? The Christmas tree in the far corner, left up year-round. Her mother’s broken down Singer, neglected for so long that it seemed an offering to the spiders and silverfish. Her father’s tool chest with the lock not quite intact, filled with wrenches, bolts, a humble collection of Penthouse and Hustler.

     Again, the lights ruin it all, making it disappear. There is hope, though. Like the garage, there is not drywall fixed to the bare studs, except of course near the back, where her father had started work. She is relieved the new inhabitants haven’t picked up where he had left off. They’ve instead used the space to store items that have no place anywhere else in the house. They have no place in her life, either.

     The smell, she takes it in. It is her favourite smell, and she cannot explain precisely what it is. All she knows is that it comes from the house, has always been here, and she has longed to let it back inside her head.

     At the far end is the fireplace, one built of concrete and smooth stones that jut out slightly. She’d always thought they looked like the ostrich eggs the Chapman’s had on their farm three properties over. One in particular looks different from the rest. It has an orange glow about it, and this is no accident. Molly remembered coating it long ago using a water colour paint kit that she’d received in her stocking. She did it knowing that her father, who built the fireplace to half completion, would one day see the stone and reprimand her for it. The day never came, and to this day her stone remains orange and the fireplace unfinished.

     She kneels before it, letting her hands caress it’s smooth surface. Her breathing has quickened, and sweat is gathering along her lower back as she bends. It takes two stern tugs before the stone comes free of the concrete, and she sets it down beside her, one half painted orange, the other grey. She remembers it taking much longer for her to unlock the stone from its socket, but her hands were smaller then.

     The socket goes deeper than the length of the stone, and this is also of her doing. The day she first discovered the loose stone, she used her father’s chisel to free it, and then to dig further back into the concrete. What came of that was this, her secret place, a place that her parents or anyone in the city never knew a thing about.

     She reaches a hand in, feeling that the contents are still here. The first thing she brings into the light is a sugar packet, the logo a winking king of spades. Immediately she remembers where it has come from, the refreshment table along the back wall of Andrew’s Funeral Home, the place where she last saw her father. She never walked up to the casket like her mother had instructed. She had heard her cousins talking about touching the body’s hand, how it was cold, how he looked like a doll or something that her father never resembled when he was alive and a quarryman. For this reason, Molly stayed at the back of the room, under the table draped with her grandmother’s Irish linens. She remembered reaching a hand up, feeling the bowl of packets, stealing one for herself. It was her way of remembering him because she knew there wasn’t a lot else that she could do.

     She dips back into the secret place, finding more. The next item she doesn’t remember stashing away, but of course she must have because it is here now. She’d made mention of its origins earlier that morning without even knowing she would find it today. It is an opened Sheik wrapper, the purple lustre of the thing shining against the light above her. It belonged to the boy with the Russian parents, her uncut suitor, her first time. He had left it on her bed after it was over and she had been transformed into the type of girl that her neighbour Shirley Mayfield called, “a total s**t-bag.” Molly remembers it was only a few months after that when Shirley herself was inducted into the club of s**t-bags by an eager Douglass Fletcher, who lived on the ranch across from her house.

     There is something else in the hole and it could be the reason why she has come back. It’s strange to her why she kept such a thing. It doesn’t seem to fit with any of the other keepsakes. She doesn’t know why it is here, why she kept it, or how to explain its significance to anyone. She feels it at the very back of the hole, and begins dragging it out into the light.

     It has yellowed but is still intact, sitting like a misshapen a bowl in her palm. It is smaller than she remembers, but when she rolls up her pant leg to look at the scars, she sees that it is indeed the perfect size. She is about to prove this, press it to her leg, something she did every night until moving out of the house for good. Someone interrupts her.

     “I’m calling the police,” says a girl, standing at the base the stairs, a cordless phone in her hand. She is young, black, dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, her hair flat ironed and shining against the burning bulb above her.

     Molly is frozen, unable to believe someone is actually there.

     “Did you hear what I said?”

     Molly nods slowly. “Please,” she whispers.

     “Who are you? What are you doing in this house? What do you think you’re doing?”

     Molly can tell the girl is terrified, and tries her best to stay calm.

     “Please,” she says again, louder this time. “I’m not... I’m not here to cause trouble. I’m not robbing the place. I just...”

     The girl watchers her, waiting. “You what?”

     “I just came back... to get something. This used to be my house. I used to live here. I grew up here.”

     “What have you got there? That belongs to Mr. and Mrs. Comber, whatever you’re holding.”

     Molly looks at what is in her hand. “No,” she says. “This is mine. This is from when I lived here. It’s old.”

     “I don’t believe you. I have to call the cops.”

     “Wait,” Molly says, rising slowly. “I can prove it to you. Please don’t call the police. I’m not here for a bad reason. I’m just... I don’t know. Let me prove it to you, OK?”

     The girl stands there, the phone gripped tight in her hand, but turned off. She looks guilty. Molly thinks she must be responsible for leaving the side door unlocked.

     “Are you a crazy person?” the girl asks, her voice trembling.

     “Well...” Molly starts, smiling a little. “That’s a tough one to answer. I came for something. This. And you might think I’m crazy for wanting it, but it’s mine, really.”

     “What is it?”

     “It’s... it’s Squire. It’s part of my dog. It’s where I got these scars from and I’ve never showed anyone where they came from. Can I... show you?”

     “I... I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

     “Please. It’s the only way I can prove that it’s mine. That I’m not stealing for these people--The Combers, right?” Molly is uneasy about saying their name.

     The girl doesn’t know why, but she isn’t threatened by this person. She trusts her, somehow. She is walking towards the fireplace, carefully, to where this strange woman is. “All right. You can show me, but after that I think you should leave. You don’t belong here, you know?”

     “I know,” Molly says.

     “I’m supposed to be looking after the place while they’re gone. I don’t want to trouble them with a police report and whatever else will happen if I call the cops. They’re good people. They’re paying me a lot to look after the house while they’re away.”

     Molly nods. “I understand. May I show you?”              

     “Yes... I guess, sure.”

     Molly holds the thing up, letting light fall over it. “It’s... it’s what I dug up after my dog was buried. His name was Squire. He was a mutt. My dad got him from a kennel, for free I think. He had bad owners before. One night we were playing, and I kept shining a flashlight in his face, and he kept trying to bite at the beam. My mom told not to mess with him for too long, but I couldn’t stop because it was really funny. At one point I rested the flashlight on my leg to answer my mom who was calling from downstairs. Squire jumped at the light, and he bit into my leg.” Molly shows the girl the scars that look like a constellation, and then holds out the bone. It is the lower portion of a skull, the jawbone, and it offers a uneven row of pointed canines and molars. They have yellowed, but are there, intact. Molly takes the bone and places it at the back of her calf, showing where the teeth punctured her flesh.

     The girl watches Molly do this, seeing how the constellation was created.

     “Squire was missing some teeth. He had mostly gum on top, you know? But on the bottom row is what got me. I thought it would never stop bleeding.”

     There is a long silence between them as Molly keeps the teeth pressed to her leg.

     “What happened to the dog?” the girl asks.

     Molly sits down, her back against the fireplace. “My dad killed the dog after it happened. I went to the hospital with my mother, but my dad stayed back and killed him. He buried him at the furthest end of the property line, next to a row of evergreens. When I came back from the hospital, we never talked about Squire again.”

     The girl holds out her hand for the bone, taking it, studying it, running her finger along the dull teeth. “Why is it here now?”

     “I found out where my dad buried Squire. He didn’t ever want me to know, and I think that’s why he hid it as far back onto the property as he did. But I found the spot. The grass never grew in the same there, you see. It came in thinner, always yellow, so I knew. One night, a few years after, I snuck out of the house with a shovel and dug it up. It was the only part of him that I found. And I came back today to find it. I’m sorry... I just... I needed to have it back. I needed to see that it was still behind the stone, where I left it.”

     The girl nods, handing the jaw back to Molly. “Looks like it was,” she says.


     She watches Molly’s Toyota pull out of the driveway. It turns right, leaving a clay coloured cloud in its wake. The girl waters the plants in living room before leaving, locking the front door, making sure to do the same to the side door this time. On her way back up the driveway, she notices the junk mail in the box, telling herself she’ll throw it out when she comes back tomorrow. The Combers are due back by the weekend. They will never know about what had been left in their fireplace. They will never know what has been taken back.          

© 2012 Joel McCarthy

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I suppose a psychologist might explain why it is that we sometimes need to go searching the past, trying to find something meaningful like Molly did. Being one with that same proclivity, I was right there with her. An excellent and enjoyable write, Joel.

Here are some small errors I found.
(1) "a misshapen a bowl in her palm."
(2) "standing at the base the stairs,"
(3) "waters the plants in living room before...."

Posted 9 Years Ago

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Added on December 6, 2012
Last Updated on December 6, 2012
Tags: prose, minimalism, third person, present tense


Joel McCarthy
Joel McCarthy

Mississauga, Canada

My name is Joel McCarthy and I write. Some of work has been published in magazines like PRISM International, The Feathertale Review, and Macabre Cadaver. I'll review whatever work I find that is polis.. more..