The newest perfume on the shelf is La Mer, but Emilio has worked at the fragrance counter for so long that he can no longer distinguish between its myriad scents. The amber sprays smell the same as the pink rollerballs and the white solids, and even the delicate glass bottles shaped like tulips and apples only suggest a vacancy and extravagance found in department stores. Emilio eyes the cash register’s electronic clock and times how long he can hold his breath before feeling faint, how many minutes he can stay perfectly still at his station in front of the shiny La Mer boxes until a passerby mistakes him for a waxy, misplaced mannequin wearing a rumpled Kenneth Cole button-down. His high school friends have already made jabs at him for working at a perfume counter the summer after senior year and, since he’s worked here for three months now, he now has fewer friends than when he started. But Emilio has learned to be accepting of this loss, just as he has learned to be accepting of it when he returns home from his shift to be greeted by his mother, Janie, dancing with a plastic broom to “Margaritaville” in the dim light of their pea-green kitchen. How she glides toward Emilio with her vodka-drenched breath to tell him that he smells as wonderful as a “a row of roses, a rosy rabble, a cozy dozy posy,” grabbing at the collar of his shirt and pressing her nose into it as if it were a perfume flap in a fashion magazine. Or when, lighting a cigarette with her grubby fingers, she asks how Cecilia’s doing even though Emilio hasn’t spoken to Cecilia in over two months, and not because he hasn’t tried.
Emilio looks up from the sample bottle of La Mer in his hand and notices the face of a woman with white hair and a black shawl, seemingly ensnared by the bright lights of the store’s display counters. This shawl is perilously balanced atop her head, and before anything can be done it falls to the floor in a gentle swoop. The woman’s hands knead each other as she removes wooly mittens ill-suited for the summer’s heat and stuffs them into her dress pockets. Her entire presence seems out of place for the mall and for this city as a whole, a swath of land too far east from Los Angeles to inspire interest or awe in anyone. Still, there’s the occasional palm tree. An adult store two blocks down from a middle school. Also 24-hour taco shops, bending chain link, dollar stores, roller rinks, a massive mural depicting greater San Bernardino’s brown-topped mountains, paint peeling, graffiti peeling. But here, the only women with white hair who Emilio comes across are the ones peeking at him from behind their crocheted curtains in the middle of the day as he walks to the bus stop, trying to outpace a tumbleweed being whipped up by the wind. This wind, born in the nearby peaks, pushes dirt into the streets and beats twigs off of trees. Naturally, the tumbleweed always wins these races in the end, floating away in victorious reverie before being smashed to thorny bits by a speeding truck.
And then there’s the mall. There is always the mall. Emilio stands in the middle of it, perpetually freezing in the two-story, air-conditioned building, attempting to pull the too-short cuffs of his long-sleeved shirt over his hands. He finds it difficult not to imagine himself as an insignificant dot in a long-forgotten snow globe, his fingernails turning blue as the frigid air circulates around him. He thinks, perhaps thousands of years in the future archeologists will find him, the Ötzi of the twenty-first century. Caucasian male. Late teens to early twenties. An autopsy reveals a devastating last meal of canned spaghetti and tapioca pudding, both perfectly preserved in the stomach. Clearly, he lived (and died) alone. Minimal muscle mass. Most likely a virgin.
From the perfume display opposite his, Emilio sees Malena smirk and lean across the glass countertop. Her hands cradle her face in both anticipation and derision and her whitened teeth peek out from in between two perfectly reddened lips. He feels her watching him and the old woman, hoping for some kind of fatal misstep that will get him written up, suspended, or leave him otherwise emotionally maimed. None of her boredom-fueled hostility goes undetected by Emilio. Rather, he finds it hard to believe that when he first began working at the perfume department he thought of Malena as ephemerally beautiful, a Latina Ava Gardner. How quickly the firm breasts lost their appeal, their steady, undulating mystery.
The black shawl’s descent to the linoleum floor rouses the woman, who previously appeared to be in a mall-induced stupor. Unable to pivot quickly, she feels around her head for any last remnant of the shawl that might have remained. She appears panicked, groping at her white hair with the tips of her fingers. “Oh, god dammit,” she says, her voice a muffled surge.
Malena, hearing this throatiness, stifles a laugh. She is closest to the shawl but looks at it as if it were a dirty diaper. For a fleeting moment, Emilio suppresses the urge to throw a perfume bottle at his coworker, a large, bulbous bottle like La Mer that would thud against her collar bone and land on the floor where it would shatter and douse her high heels in fragrant stench. Instead, he sets the sample bottle back on the shelf and walks around the counter. As always, he is most self-conscious when not behind the safety of the cash register, embarrassed by his perpetually wrinkled, too-small shirt, his baggy polyester slacks, and his pleather shoes whose cheap soles make clacking sounds against the floor. He picks up the fallen shawl and is instantly surprised at how soft it is in his hands. He had expected something coarser judging by the shawl’s lack of sheen—perhaps felt, a fabric produced by a series of crushing forces.
The woman looks up at Emilio and puts her hands out, prompting him to drape the shawl across the translucent skin of her forearms like a sacred offering. She thanks him, her voice wavering in the air as if it were about to tip over. With his help, she is able to get the shawl over her head again. Emilio instinctively pulls a couple short locks out from beneath the cloth to help frame her face, and she doesn’t attempt to stop him. This touching of hair—the soft grit of the individual strand—momentarily causes Emilio to remember his grandfather’s funeral two years ago, how his mother, obviously drunk and crying out of only one eye, stumbled up to the open casket to cut a tuft of gray hair off of her father’s head for memory’s sake, only to accidentally stab the deceased in the temple with the scissors, much to the horror of everyone in attendance, especially Emilio. It also reminds Emilio of his ex-girlfriend, Cecilia, who always hated when he laid a finger on her head, but who insisted on pulling his hair all too roughly while they kissed and groped each other on her parents’ brocade sofa. After those passionate encounters he would lay in bed at night with a tender, humming scalp, bleeding a bit behind the ears and feeling blessed to be alive.
“I need a perfume for a funeral. My granddaughter’s,” the woman says.
Emilio seizes up. The starkness of the statement catches him by surprise, dangles him over the edge of a cliff by his twisted collar. My granddaughter’s. With a constricted throat, he asks when the funeral is before saying that he’s sorry for her loss, quickly realizing his error as soon as it exits his mouth. Clenching his hands into fists as a secret outburst of self-flagellation, his blue nails threaten to break the skin of his palm. If he could somehow choose death over life in this moment, he quite possibly might.
“It’s tomorrow,” she adds, readjusting the shawl. “She was just learning to walk and then she got sick. I’d bought new shoes for her last month from this very mall. Brown Shoe Company was the store. She wore them two, maybe three times.”
“I’m very sorry,” Emilio says. But this response seems unexceptional, insincere. And even though he knows that Brown Shoe Company was shut down years ago, he imagines canvas shoes that fit in the palms of his hands, their soles clean, white, and gummy. He searches his brain for fragrances of mourning, but all he can think about are the perfumes made to smell like first love, summertime, and wild flowers, or the perfume bottles made to look like swans or the silhouettes of corseted women.
“That one behind you,” she says, pointing to the shelf of La Mer behind Emilio’s perfume station. The liquid itself is pink, the bottle in the shape of a small clam, provocative in its slight gape. “How does it smell?” she asks.
Of course, Emilio no longer knows what any of these perfumes smell like. Dainty jars of coffee beans are stationed throughout the perfume department to act as palate cleansers for the nasally confused, but even they have lost their ability. The most Emilio can do is offer to tell the woman about the perfume. He decides to read the back of one of the La Mer boxes, even though his supervisor, Oscar, would frown upon this lack of originality and preparedness. In his three months here, Emilio has already had to attend over five staff meetings led by this supervisor, who requires that all perfume department employees sit in a circle in the break room, smelling new perfumes and writing down impromptu descriptions of their scents on yellow legal pads. The employee with the best original description wins a five-minute extension on their lunch break that day, just enough time to work on a crossword puzzle or buy a bran muffin from the vending machine that always steals quarters. Never has Emilio won these contests, which he finds depressing in their futility, nor has he ever fully committed himself to trying. Of a new perfume named Fleur, Emilio wrote in his small, cramped cursive, “flowers, schnapps, cumulus.” Oscar looked at him with scorn after gathering the sheets of paper. The prize for Fleur was ultimately awarded to the same person it’s always awarded to, Edith Ellen Reynolds, a woman who has worked at the perfume counter directly behind Emilio for over ten years following the death of her husband, Bob Reynolds. What she does with her extra five minutes, Emilio doesn’t know.
What Emilio does know is that if Oscar could have it his way, he would drench him with cheap perfume and set him ablaze. Or at the very least order Malena to, who would have no qualms so long as it didn’t eat into her fifteen-minute break, a time she dutifully uses to take photos of herself and peel the skin off of green grapes. Emilio clears his throat. The box of perfume slips about in his sweaty palms. He begins.
“La Mer is a stunning fragrance, vivid and surprising like the beauty of an early morning sea mist. The scent is magnificently adorned with the brightness of mandarin and the spontaneity of lemongrass. Feminine notes are displayed with the delicacy of jasmine, the crispness of bamboo, and the calming charm of green tea. Deep notes of bergamot and pink pepper complete this eau de perfume, creating the irresistible sensation of a long walk along the ocean’s shore.”
Emilio looks up from the box of La Mer and sees that the woman’s eyes are closed, a small twitch setting off in her left eyelid. Finally, she opens them. He thinks he notices a watery web of tears beginning to gather along the bottom eyelashes.
“That was fine,” she says. A pause. “But maybe one with a little less romance. Sea mist and sunset are too much. I have a grandson who’s about your age, you know.”
Emilio studies her eyes. Grandchildren. Sea mist. She appears fragile and watery. He thinks that this is how he must have looked two months ago when he got off the phone with Cecilia for the last time after she told him that she didn’t love him anymore, had in fact never actually loved him. The pain like a steak knife repeatedly descending upon the heart until the muscle was indistinguishable from a pulpy heap of road kill. Or a week later, the tears welling in his eyes when he returned home from another mind-numbing shift at the perfume counter, only to be greeted by his mother splayed out on the living room sofa, her sweat pants saturated with urine, the bottoms of her feet pitch-black with grime, and an empty vodka bottle cradled in her arms, gleaming dully.
“Of course,” Emilio says. He reaches for another box of perfume, his hand trembling slightly. This one, Diamond Dust, sells for as much as he makes in a week. But before he can begin reading another description, Oscar places himself in between Emilio and the woman, his supervisor name tag hanging limply by its safety pin. Oscar’s stance—the soft chest puffed out, the pelvis jutting forward, the legs set in a permanently wide stance like that of a green, plastic army man—says, quite boldly, that the perfume department will not be degraded by the uninspired reading of perfume boxes.
“Ma’am,” Oscar says, “I know you were here a couple weeks ago. You tried out about thirty samples of perfume from one of our associates, Edith Ellen. Do you remember Edith Ellen? Okay. But you didn’t buy anything. In fact, it seemed you were intentionally trying to undermine our operations. So, what can I help you with? Because I’ll be honest. I don’t think there’s really a funeral.”
There is a stillness in the air like that of the inside of a janitorial closet packed with musty mops and frayed steel wool. Emilio puts the Diamond Dust back on the shelf and feels a wave of sweat erupt on the nape of his neck. The woman shifts her shawl, methodically rubbing the cloth between her fingers. Oscar purses his lips, barely concealing the simple pleasure derived from reprimanding both employee and customer. His brown loafers squish against the linoleum as if filled with soap water. The fragrance on his neck—indeed, perfume—is so overpoweringly saccharine that even Emilio can smell it. The old woman tries to reestablish contact with Emilio by peeking around Oscar’s torso as if it were a chilly column, one of many supporting an otherwise vacant building. They catch each other’s eyes, briefly.
“I know Julys are hard to handle,” Oscar says. His voice has become higher, softer, and brighter, as if he were talking to an infant. Emilio listens, half-expecting his supervisor to throw a limp arm around the old woman’s shoulder. The woman’s face becomes hardened as if trying to decipher illegible cursive. Oscar continues, “But the entire mall is air conditioned. Did you know that? This includes the mall’s common areas. Anyone is allowed to walk around in those without buying anything. The restrooms are also open to the public.”
Malena conceals a laugh from behind her perfume counter. Her red mouth makes Emilio’s stomach sour, the way her teeth glide in between the puffed lips like oiled Chiclets. The back of Oscar’s frame—the scaly elbows, missing buttocks, fading Just For Men hair dye—fills Emilio with unprecedented despair. While all eyes are on the woman, Emilio grabs a different box of perfume from beneath the counter and crams it into his pants pocket, a bottle that was recently returned with the complaint that it was “lacking in sex appeal.” Good. He then offers to show the old woman out, his arm looping in hers. An unexpected, but pleasant closeness under the fluorescent lighting. Oscar looks at Emilio as if to say, do not disappoint me, you teenage turd.
Outside the department store, Emilio walks the woman to the nearest bench, a metal thing made for people stopping to eat cheese-filled pretzel balls or for disgruntled husbands unable to bring themselves to accompany their wives into lingerie stores. A bench that could be promptly hosed off in case of a snow cone spill or a stabbing. It’s early and the mall is relatively empty. A child’s lone scream emanates from the indoor jungle gym, bouncing off of storefronts until it dissipates by the water fountain polluted with pennies. Wishes. In the window of a greeting card shop opposite the bench, a young woman in a green dress kneels on the store’s thin carpeting, emptying out a display case of bald eagle dolls and greeting cards with fireworks blown across their visages. She gets a paper cut from one of the card’s envelopes and Emilio watches her suck the blood from her finger. A most delicate operation. For a moment there is only silence and the fleeting odor of dust sifting through the air. It’s not until Emilio and the old woman are both seated that one of them speaks.
“The funeral really is tomorrow,” she says.
Emilio nods. “Of course, I believe you. I’m sorry for all of that,” he says, motioning toward the department store.
The woman waves her hand as if to silence him. At the same time, the young woman in the green dress looks up and smiles in Emilio’s direction before retreating into a back room, presumably to retrieve a Band-Aid. Or is her smile intended exclusively for the old woman? Or is it intended for Emilio and the old woman, sitting together in the empty mall? Perhaps the young woman believes Emilio is sitting with his grandmother, who has suddenly become light-headed while shopping for bed sheets. Perhaps she believes they have stopped to discuss the various flavors of “artisanal” salami, sold at a nearby kiosk. Either way, now that he’s no longer standing at the perfume counter, Emilio feels that a little bit of his vitality is restored. Blood begins working itself back into the tips of his fingers as if the brain has signaled to the rest of his body that life may, once again, resume. He finds himself pushed to speak but struggles for the words. He’d like to tell the old woman about his mother and her vodka on ice, her piss-soaked sweatpants on Sunday afternoons, on Monday afternoons, on Tuesday afternoons. Or how if he doesn’t give her vodka money from his paycheck, she gets it from a man technically old enough to be her grandfather. That this is the reason for overtime at the perfume department. That there will be no college. How could there be? But even so, Emilio holds his tongue. The woman has a funeral to attend, after all. Well, even if she doesn’t actually have a funeral to attend. No matter. He removes the perfume box from his pocket and holds it with the tips of his fingers like one would a Rubik’s Cube. He scans its description. He reads its first line.
“Trésor is for the woman who knows that life is precious.”
Emilio laughs a little, touching his nose with his thumb. He continues reading. But the more he reads, the more he makes up, and pretty soon he’s hardly reading the description at all.
“Life can be meaningful,” he says. “Maybe beautiful, even the painful times. You’ve been through a whole lot, I’ll bet. Well, I’m guessing. This fragrance could evoke a good feeling when you wear it. But it might not. It might just make you sad, lonely. Like for real. If so, I’m sorry for that. The scents contained are rose, apricot blossom, and freshly cut grass. Do you like any of those? Do you like freshly cut grass?”
Emilio holds his breath and waits for the woman’s response. Her eyes are closed, her breathing deep. Is she sleeping? Praying? The crow’s feet point to the eyes, the heavy folds frame the mouth, the top lip protruding slightly. He senses that he is being observed. He looks over at the young woman in the green dress who has returned to the greeting card shop’s display, a fresh beige bandage covering her wound. She is standing in the store’s window, pretending to rearrange decorative candles. She stops, touches her hair. She looks at him. She smiles.