Fiction · 10/14/2020

Perfume Circuit

1.

I filled my mouth with wax and let it cool there until it hardened and took on the ridges of my palate and the folds of my tongue, then I opened wide until my jaw ached, but the wax could not escape. If I pushed it would dent and the ridges would scrape off, so I took a slim piece of wire and slid it carefully through to split the wax into halves that could slip neatly between my teeth. Once each was free, I glued the halves together and could hold the shape of my inner-mouth.

I did this many times. I made a wall of identical oral cavities. I cast mouths in metals, in ceramic. Some I painted. I used different shades of wax. I pinned them together to form occult shapes. I strung them into a curtain, into ceremonial adornments. I made hollow casts and injected them with valuable liquids — liquors, perfumes. I made a personalized scent and called it “Eau is Me,” sold mouths full of the stuff to fashionable boutiques.

This, it turns out, was the sole thing I was good for — the one way I had ever plugged myself into the machine of commerce with any semblance of success; the only thing I ever did that others liked enough to materially support.

They weren’t extravagant, but my perfume proceeds funded a long vacation that stretched into indefinite wandering.

What I did then, mostly, was walk. I checked in weekly with the assistant who operated the mouth molds and handled order fulfillment. I tweaked my website and made sales calls from a spreadsheet. On occasion I mixed scent variants — seasonal offerings that would blend in cloves or smoke or loam. My brand, recall, was built on the eau sound.

This is how I came to be an itinerant minor perfumer, to be independent, to require haircuts only at the order of my whims.

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2.

I suppose success went to my head. I wanted a reason for things and convinced myself of the brilliance of my nose. The scents I composed sold, so I assumed the cause must be talent. An order, in the world, is great comfort.

This period of self-belief, which I regret now as perverse, brought a farcical seriousness to my adventures. I recast wonder as research and sniffed my way across the country. I swabbed and sampled; I tweezed things into vials that I labeled according to a private taxonomy. I knew too little to name anything right.

I plucked flowers and berries and various leaves, took bits of earth, of rich and heavy-smelling clay. And I took other scents, wilder ones or not, burnt tires and gutter slime and thin toilet paper. This turn to the unusual, the unpleasant even, is not surprising. Any period of sustained study leads one to value the complex and the novel — to prefer the interesting, that is, to the beautiful.

In any case my travels, and the samples they yielded, led to a series of experimental odors that I convinced myself were intoxicating, difficult, perhaps transcendent. More importantly, I convinced some number of well-heeled individuals that appreciating my work was a mark of sophistication. I began to market these scents as a line of exclusive all-gender colognes. The prices they fetched were obscene.

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3.

My base of followers, though not large, was quite loyal. They would support whatever I released, so I launched a magazine of smells. At first this was a minimalist venture. Each issue consisted of a single scent and a description that I thought could capture or frame it — a bit of language on which the experience of each smell could attach.

Ambitious, I wanted to do more than just mix a new smell each month. Magazines carry dozens of articles per issue, after all, and I hoped the magazine of smells would be more than just a subscription perfume service. I started packaging issues in little wooden boxes — intricately carved containers inlaid with stones or metal or bits of abalone shell. Inside each, I placed an array of scents which I described with ornate and winding texts.

After a few issues, I began to receive letters from perfumers and scent collectors. They mailed in samples also, strange blends from kitchens and archives and basement labs. They wrote long letters about the smells I’d distributed, about their own creations and desires. They often asked if I would include a scent of theirs in a future issue, and as some were of genuine interest, I featured several in the magazine.

In time, I came to rely on these outside submissions. I’d run low on olfactory inspiration. So I turned from being an itinerant scent-maker into a judge of others’ odors. I spent hours inhaling submissions, taking notes, deciding which to send to my subscribers.

But my primary work was not the selection of scents. Rather, my main task those days was writing. I composed increasingly lengthy texts to accompany each issue. I turned away from pure description and toward history and science. I traced lineages of perfumes, geographies of odors, historical symbolic associations of various scents. I became interested, even, eventually, in the stories of perfumers themselves — the lives, that is, of individuals who’d dedicated themselves to the sense of smell.

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4.

So, more or less accidentally, I became a biographer of perfumers and scent-collectors and scientists of smell. I published several monographs and slipped biographical sketches into my magazine. I attended the occasional conference, contributed texts to a handful of retrospectives and anthologies. I had become, in a small corner of the world, an actual scholar.

This phase of my career lasted the better part of a decade, and it provided me some measure of satisfaction. Or at least it mostly held my attention.

Still, however charming or unexpected, my perfumers’ biographies never quite seemed adequate. I felt a nagging need to move beyond them, to find some better way to approach my subjects’ particular kind of brilliance.

That is, it’s not that I grew tired of the scent-makers’ stories, but that I realized traditional biography was insufficient or even beside the point. These were people whose lives were dominated by the world of scents and that was what I wanted to explore — their relation to smell, their perception.

I learned a good deal by inhaling the scents they made, by watching videos of their lectures and interviews, by reading their often detailed notes and descriptions. But this left me always at a remove, always approaching without really comprehending the fullness of their sensations. What I was after, I realized, was something embodied — something inseparable from my subjects’ physical forms.

So I obsessed over measurements, spent days lost in reveries of noses and tongues, of the organs and spaces of perception. My writing shifted as well. Florid scenes and straining metaphors were replaced with rows of numbers and cool, neutral observation. As much as possible, I conducted comparative biological assessments in an attempt to catalog the great smelling bodies. I used old photographs to construct models, to assess the width of their lips, the fluctuations of their nostril flares.

Naturally, I wanted to see where I stood. Did I fit any of the patterns I’d uncovered? Was I physiologically destined to stand with the giants of scent?

I took to measuring myself.

The tools at first were as expected — rulers and thermometers. Calipers. But this was terribly insufficient. The sensory organs I was most interested in were those that took in air, that held it and let crystallize the experience of smell or, more precisely, the apprehension of any given scent. I focused much of my attention on my nose, but taste is also central to smell, and closely related, so mapping my mouth was a task of similarly high priority.

It took a bit of trying, but I figured out how to do that as well.

I filled my mouth with wax and let it cool there until it hardened and took on the ridges of my palate and the folds of my tongue, then I opened wide until my jaw ached, but the wax could not escape. If I pushed it would dent and the ridges would scrape off, so I took a slim piece of wire and slid it carefully through to split the wax into halves that could slip neatly between my teeth. Once each was free, I glued the halves together and could hold the shape of my inner-mouth.

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Ben Segal is the author of Pool Party Trap Loop (Queen’s Ferry Press), co-author of The Wes Letters (Outpost 19), and co-editor of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Lit Pub Books). His short fiction has been published by The Georgia Review, Tin House, The Collagist, Tarpaulin Sky, and Puerto del Sol, among others. He currently lives in Los Angeles.