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An Avoided Asteroid
By R.E. Faro | Can a strong smell, like the taste of a Proustian madeleine, spark memory?

“You got a dead thing in your garden,” said Maurizio, my cleaning woman’s 5-year-old son, wrinkling his nose. “Stink-eee.”

I smelled it, too, a whiff of dead meat, but it was just a suggestion, so slight that it might have emanated from somewhere else. I certainly didn’t want to investigate. I grabbed a towel and swim trunks and headed to the Y.

At the pool my freestyle was erratic, smooth now and then, but more often a struggle, as though through molasses. All my improvement seemed without foundation. Stuff happens for which patience is the only passable, possible response—but I proceeded to start pushing myself, punishing myself. After a few laps my former teacher’s counsel—“Stop when you’re still having fun”—broke through the static, and I climbed out. It was 10 minutes before the end of lap swim, in any case.

As I walked to the locker, a dark little flower bloomed in the cellar of my brain, sending out paralyzing hormones. What was the combination to my lock, a lock I have opened a hundred times? The numbers, I knew, ended in 6, at least two did. They were even numbers. 26-36-6. 16-30-6. 6-30-16. 6-10 . . . .

Minutes passed as I scrolled through combinations. And more. Shoes. Wallet and cell phone. Keys. Pants shirt jacket. Inside. Outside it was still foggy, 60 degrees, not exactly suitable for a 3-mile barefoot saunter home in a skimpy suit. My skimpiest. Hanging onto the lock as to a lifeline, I turned away from the locker to face the huge crushing asteroid of embarrassment hurtling from the sky. What was I going to do?

I gave the lock a last, petulant yank, and it fell open. Open. Thank you, guardian angel. I showered, dressed (thank you, clothes) and, still ruffled, skipped the planned detour to Peet’s for a cappuccino coupled with a noble attempt at today’s five-star-difficulty sudoku, a new, puzzling entry to my addiction portfolio. (Was I still having fun? Kind of, but my, how the hours passed.)

Now home, I sit at the table on the deck with Maurizio opposite me coloring, the lock under my nose. I clicked it shut when I left the pool and so I fiddle, unable once again to unlock it. Every attempt erases more of my retrieval powers. It occurs that maybe all the evil sudoku numbers are driving out the useful numbers.

As I sit here uselessly, Marta is in the pantry vacuuming, no doubt trying to make sense of jars of pinto beans, extension cords, horticultural oil, a Scrabble game missing (she doesn’t know this) an A and an H. She puts things where she thinks they should go, and I search for them for days after her visit, but I like the order she leaves behind, even if it is superficial and perplexing. It allays a slight anxiety that I, like the poor frog gradually being cooked, might be on a path to where people come in and don’t ask, restrained by politeness, “What’s that awful smell?”

This is what happened at Alice’s. I brought her some Chinese take-out, and we had to shove aside the piles on the coffee table in the living room for a place to put the cartons and a couple of plates. The paths through the dining room and kitchen were barely navigable. The further we got from the kitchen the better it suited me, given the smell coming from there. I would be worried were it not that her son will soon arrive and deal with the chaos, put the house on the market, and take her back to Vancouver to live.

“I’ll be gone forever in September,” she said, and while I know it’s a good thing for her, and she is, as she says, “sanguine,” I don’t want to think about it. I know that I will kick myself if I don’t say a proper farewell, but I have not made a date. Will I ever make it to Vancouver? I haven’t yet in my whole life.

I give up on the lock, and grab dirty sneakers from the back porch. I may as well do some watering. Marta sees me, waves, and says something that I can’t decipher over the noise. It can’t be too important if she doesn’t turn off the vacuum, so I wave back, brandishing clippers.

The hose. Here is another way my life loses its lug nuts. It is as stiff as a Republican congressman, with as many kinks. Uncoiling it takes as much patience as coiling it; carelessly done, it will pinch and shut down. But it’s fine otherwise, and I can’t toss it and pop off to Home Depot for another. I’m not that kind of guy. I can’t throw away the combination lock, either.

Typically overgrown, the garden’s disorder is romantic, a symptom not of decay, moral or other, but health. The leafy embrace may be preliminary to a death grip, but I’m not worried. Après nous, le déluge. Better that than a clipped garden where any surprise is an unpleasant one.

But an unpleasant surprise seems to be on today’s docket. The stink in the garden has gotten riper, not ignorable. A raccoon, possum, rat, or (dreaded most) Cindy? She has been absent at chowtime the last two days, and while a walkabout is not irregular, one of these days it’s bound to be one-way. Fifteen is an august age for a feral cat. She’s had a good life despite, or because of, being spayed early on. The garden is where she struts her considerable avoirdupois. She’s all bluff, but convincing. Deaf as celery, morning and evening she camps on the porch and squawks until I pony up the grub. If I get too close, she swipes at me with her paw. Ne touche pas. I take it personally when she inevitably flees as I come out the back door, as though she sees my untrustworthy nature unfiltered. Reflecting, I judge that her skittishness is no more a choice than my travesty of a French accent, yet unaccountably, she lets Maurizio put his hand on her back with barely a shudder.

I wrestle the hose around, giving some plants extra water, the ones that would vote to bump up the timing on the system. Another thing not to think about: drought. Let the rains come generously this winter. While I spritz, I am alert for the matted fur, glazed eyeball, limbs riddled with maggots.

I notice a swarm of flies hovering some yards away, and approach, poking at the foliage with a rake. Nestled amid limp callas and fern fronds is a maroon so lurid it’s a wonder I had not seen it before: velvety, 10 inches across, a spathe with a recurved rim tapering to a point. From its center rises a 12-inch long, almost black spadix. Flies writhe over the lubricious protusion in dazed appreciation of its stench, or in consternation at being so deceptively seduced.

Stink lily. Voodoo lily. The dragon arum, Dracunculus vulgaris. This plant was given to me, a measly, spotted stalk with a single, ruffled leaf in a four-inch pot. I stuck it in the ground near this frowsy colony of calla lilies, an aroid among aroids. It disappeared, I forgot about it. Last spring the leaves, when they appeared, were white-flecked and ruffled, almost specimen-worthy but perhaps for lack of water, went quickly limp, cheeks on the ground. Forgotten for the second time. This is the first time it has bloomed.

Unforgettably. I touch the spathe and get a twisted little thrill. Summoning courage I dip my nose into its bouquet. Stink-eee is right, ranking high in the ranks of rankness, and, dare I say, perversely attractive. I sample another wave, faintly nauseated.

“Maurizio, ven aquí,” I yell up. I remember Flora’s niece, a year or so younger than Maurizio, and her full-tilt panic around the callas, and I am curious at his reaction.

He puts down his crayon, and walks through the gate down toward me. His mother’s son; every movement is tidy. Black-rimmed glasses magnify eyes with an unnerving amount of self-containment.

“It’s what stinks. Nothing dead,” I say, pointing to the inflorescence and ask, unnecessarily, “Smell?”

His eyes narrow for a moment, then widen further. He peers into the funnel’s center where the flies are clambering over each other and clamps his hand over his mouth and nose. “Yuk,” he says through his fingers. “Flor del diablo.”

. . . the sort of thing Beelzebub might pluck to make a bouquet for his mother-in-law—a mingling of unwholesome greens, purples, and pallid pinks, the livery of putrescence . . .
—E.A. Bowles, writing about Helicodiceros muscivorus, the dead horse arum

The devil, or a part of his anatomy, is often called into reference when aroids are spoken of. The “livery of putrescence” has a nice ring too, with a potential pun: some aroids in full glory are said to be ringers for rotting liver. Not your basic houseplants, although other aroids are the biggest clichés in domesticated greenery: diffenbachias, philodendrons, and spathiphyllums.

Lately arisaemas, which are among the largest of aroid genera, are the rage among gardeners. There are about 170 species and, so far, “pretty” and “pretty weird” is what I know about them. Adding to their appeal is that they generally don’t smell bad. There is an A. odoratum but no A. foetidum.

In other aroid genera the foetidum is well deserved. Besides the aforementioned dead horse, scents have been described as resembling a corpse, dung, semen, vomit, dead rats, skunk, and rotten eggs and cabbage. Is there a devil’s breath arum? Probably. Because they are so distinctive, aroids attract common names like flies. Arum maculatum has nearly 100, among which is the cuckoo pint, which in old English means “lively penis.” Following that thread, Amorphophallus, a genus that also includes about 170 species, means “shapeless penis,” an oxymoron, it seems to me.

More astonishing: some aroids have the ability to generate heat with which to disperse their stench while providing shelter and warmth to guest pollinators. How much heat? Symplocarpus foetidus, the common skunk cabbage of the Great Lakes area, can raise the temperature of its spadix 45 degrees F. above its surroundings, and maintain this for weeks. In winter this allows it to push through snow and ice. In the tropics, the spadix of Philodendron bipinnatifidum has been measured to reach 115 degrees F. What hotfooted insects are its target market?

One particular aroid gets a lion’s share of attention, the aroid on steroids, Amorphophallus titanium, the corpse flower. “The titan arum has a reputation of being difficult to cultivate, not because, as was . . . rumoured, it eats its grower, but because it is prone to rotting, does not reliably increase in size, and fails to produce seeds or offsets,” writes Deni Brown in Aroids, Plants of the Arum Family, a diverting book from which I harvested tidbits. The leaf can grow 15 feet tall, with an inflorescence usually about 6 feet high and recorded as high as 11 feet; a giant vase that can get 4 feet across and 10 feet in circumference. When one flowered in 1999 at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, 76,000 people lined up to see it. At Fairchild Tropical Garden in Florida, the security guard wore a gas mask.

My pilgrimage to admire the one that bloomed recently at our local botanical garden was a few days early. The spathe was still wrapped shut, a pale green pleated skirt with a hint of maroon at its fringe. It was grown from seed planted 12 years ago. Phil and Joanne, friends who hit the day right, said it was already starting to close when they got there and smelled hardly at all, perhaps a bit of an anticlimax for the many who came primed for some funky thrill.

The stench of my humble stink flower won’t last more than a day either. Rita would love this, but she’s in New Mexico. Shall I invite Alice for a watch and sniff? We could have lunch afterward, if our appetites aren’t ruined. Why not?

First, one last judicial whiff. For the cause of science, an experiment. Can a powerful scent, like a taste of madeleine, restore memory?

A last few twirls of the numbered dial. Um, no.

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Dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly for more than a decade and were recently published as a collection by Ithuriel’s Spear Press.The book, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours, is available at www.spdbooks.org, Amazon.com and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R.E. Faro can be reached at farospace@sbcglobal.net. Visit www.infarosgarden.com.

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Illustration by Russ Ando