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Fever of Unknown Origin
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The Scent of Lightning


When I try to write about summer smells,
I find I don't know their names,
except for pine, which is obvious, or  roses
fresh cut grass, creosote
on the damp highway, the smell of warm dust
speckled with the first drops of rain,
I find myself talking instead about my mother
who says that even lightning has a smell
"Crouch down," she says, "if you smell it.
"That means it's going to strike
right there."
bad luck
for her now, to have such an exquisitely tuned
instrument and be caged in the
nursing home. There even creosote
would be better  than incontinent bladders,
incomplete baths, the sweet rotting smell of cancer.
A nurse pulls a heavy blanket of lysol
over it all and even that
fails to cover.

My mother looks down
at the contracted hand,
lying in her lap
"My hand smells sour,"
she whines softly.
"It bothers me." 

Certain flowers, my mother says, bother her.
Carnations, mums, some of the lilies.
Funeral flowers, she calls them. She prefers
lilacs, peonies or lumberyards littered
with fresh cut timber and hills of sawdust,
her old unwashed dog,
the steaming earth in the backyard
of her house in Whitefish Bay
after a thunderstorm. "We were all
so happy there,"
she sighs, forgetting the next day's
scent of cigarette stubs soaked
in bourbon and vermouth

When I was a child my mother
always knew where I'd been
and what I had for lunch.
"Intuition," she said it was.  Now I
know it was airborne molecules
of onions, bologna,
Alice's mother's Chanel #5
entwined in my hair and clothes;
Even my feelings had a smell.
"Are you sad?" she'd ask, hitting it
right on the head.  I learned to cover
up, the way a hunter rubs animal droppings
into his skin for camouflage;
I carried rage, embarrassment, guilt, to the shower.
"using Prell shampoo again dear?" she'd say,
when I came out.

If my mother were here with me now,
sitting on a wooden porch step in Waushara County,
she'd name these smells for me.
"Willow," she would tell me, as she watched
those clouds build in the Western sky.
"someone's hay field, the Christmas tree farm
across the highway, a dead squirrel
under the porch, this morning's coffee cups
unwashed in the sink.
And, soon,
the lightning."