A nose for things

My mother was tidy and crisp, which is why Janine's vacant mother and messy house were just what I was looking for.

By Debra Fay Holton
Published February 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

In Milpitas, Calif., in a middle-class neighborhood of tract homes with neat square patches of perfect green lawn, I met my first best friend, one of a long line of best friends who would suffer the fury of my mother's upturned nose. Janine Leonard lived in the cul-de-sac across the way with her mother and younger twin brothers, in one of the only custom-built homes on our block. She smelled like baby aspirin and her clothes always looked like they'd been sitting in the dryer for a few days. We would walk to Mrs. Bowers' first-grade class together holding hands, and when we let go to file into our assigned seats, my hand would smell like St. Joseph's, too.

I think now that part of why my mother didn't like Janine was because Mrs. Leonard sat around the living room in a baby blue housecoat most of the time. A smoker, my best friend's mother crushed out the brandless cigarettes she smoked in an overflowing ashtray that sat on the coffee table, just barely within her reach. She watched all the soap operas -- all of them -- and appeared to survive on Cheetos and Pringles potato chips. I don't think she ever opened the heavy blue living room drapes, and I had the idea that a thin sheen of dust lay over everything in that room, including Mrs. Leonard.

Though I'm sure my mother never set foot in Janine's house, she had a nose for things and could have accurately described the scene just from the scent I carried home with me. Smell was her strongest sense, one she utilized to detect crime, mendacity and bad breeding in everyone from the principal at my elementary school to door-to-door salesmen. Given the opportunity, she could make anything smell the way she wanted it to. So after each play session with Janine, Mom would put me in the bathtub and scrub my little hands and hair until everything was back to normal again.

My mom encouraged us to play at my house, in the backyard, presumably where Janine's peculiar aroma wouldn't reach her tender olfactories, but I much preferred the playground that was my best friend's house. Mrs. Leonard was my version of the dream mother, and I succeeded in convincing my parents to let me go over at least once a week. "She's not that bad," I told my parents. "She's a good mom."

What I really meant was that she let us do whatever we wanted. Well, it wasn't really a matter of letting us; she was too preoccupied with her 24-inch Zenith to pay any attention to what we were doing. We were aware that she had a vague sense of our presence; if we would have caught something on fire or broken a collarbone, we believed Mrs. Leonard would have been able to rush to our aid. But other than that, we counted on her vacancy, leaving us full run of the house, including the kitchen, the trampoline in the backyard and the pihce de risistance: her vast boudoir.

The only drawback was the twin brothers. It was an unsaid rule at Janine's that she was responsible for their well-being, and Mrs. Leonard didn't want to be disturbed by any fracas. Ted and Tom were a couple of 4-year-old parrots, imitating everything Janine and I said or did. They would follow us around the house mercilessly; if we wanted to jump on the trampoline, they had to jump too. If we made Hi-C or Jell-O in the kitchen, they demanded a chance to twirl the spoon around the mixing bowl, often slopping the sugary contents onto the floor, where we would leave it for someone -- we didn't expect it would be Mrs. Leonard -- to clean up later. They effectively held us hostage because, in addition to being accomplished echoes, they emitted reverberating shrieks if they didn't get their way.

So on certain Saturday afternoons, Janine and I would put our creative heads together and figure out ways to ditch them. They couldn't be ditched in the ordinary fashion, they were too crafty, so often most of our time together was spent constructing elaborate ruses that would keep Ted and Tom entertained. We'd build a mazelike fortress underneath the trampoline -- using bed pillows, sheets and cardboard boxes -- and they would spend at least a couple of hours working through the different routes. Once we dug a bunch of holes in the lawn and buried their favorite toys, then drew a treasure map and sent Ted and Tom on an expedition.

Finally, Janine and I would waltz into Mrs. Leonard's walk-in closet, turn on the light, shut the door and transport ourselves to another world. There was evidence in that magnificent room that at one time, my best friend's mother had an exciting social life requiring a variety of outfits for all occasions. Even as a 6-year-old, I recognized the incongruity that existed between the woman in the living room and the woman who owned the contents of that walk-in closet. But at 6 years old, I had other priorities.

We wore slinky dresses Mrs. Leonard hadn't attempted to slip into in years.
We dusted off high-heeled, sling-back pumps, patent leather sandals, spangled
and sparkling shoes that we would slip onto our small feet. Then we'd shuffle
around in clunky circles to dance hall music we could only hear in our heads.
The perfumes had a stale, powdery smell to them, but we'd douse ourselves
anyway, and I would be secretly relieved that Mrs. Leonard's sense of smell
wasn't nearly as acute as my mother's. If we'd ever imagined we could try on
my mom's precious colognes -- forget it.

Then we'd move into Mrs. Leonard's brightly lit bathroom, a bathroom of such monstrous proportions it could have contained my bedroom and my playroom. It
had a make-up mirror with big lights around it, like movie stars used, and two
round, ornately decorated sinks. Janine and I would dig expensive lipsticks
out of one of the multiple vanity drawers and climb up on the counters, where
we'd make up our faces until the heat from the lamps threatened to melt them

I only upset Mrs. Leonard once, and it was over dinner; in fact, it was the
only time I ever ate close to a normal meal in that house. Mrs. Leonard had
made stew, and a big pot of it stood on the end of the table with five bowls
stacked next to the pot and all the silverware and napkins in one pile. Ted
and Tom were crawling all over the kitchen table in anticipation of the feast.
Mrs. Leonard had poured them each glasses of milk, but when I got a glass of
Kool-Aid, suddenly they wanted Kool-Aid too. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Leonard
poured their milk back into the carton and filled the glasses with the orange
Kool-Aid. The boys didn't even complain that their Kool-Aid was cloudy from the traces of milk left in the glass.

The table was sticky and the napkins were actually cheap paper towels torn in half -- not the textured, patterned paper napkins we always used at my house. Mrs. Leonard, in the housecoat, her hair lumpy in back where she'd lain on it all day watching television, dished stew meat and vegetables into the bowls. When she started ladling into mine, I said, "No carrots, please." Cooked
carrots were one of the only things I wouldn't eat, and the mushy orange
things in Mrs. Leonard's stew were the same color as Ted and Tom's Kool-Aid.
If she made me eat those carrots, I was surely going to gag.

"Shh," Mrs. Leonard snapped. "Not in front of the boys!"

But it was too late.

They started chirping right away, "No carrots, please, no carrots for me,
please," like a couple of oversized macaws. They jumped out of their seats
and took their bowls back to their mother. "No carrots, please. No carrots
for me, please!"

Mrs. Leonard shuddered. "Look what you've done! Now you've ruined it!" she
yelled, right into my face. Then she threw the ladle into the stew and
stomped out of the dining room, up the stairs. I'd never even seen her go
upstairs before.

Quietly, Janine walked over to the stew pot, fished out the ladle and picked
the carrots out of the boys' bowls. "No carrots for me, no carrots for me,
please!" they sang and carried their bowls back to their seats. Janine
served herself some, and we sat at the tacky table and ate in silence. The
only sound was spoons scraping against the bowls. After a little while, we
heard the sound of game show applause coming from the living room; when we
smelled a little cigarette smoke wafting into the kitchen, we knew everything
was going to be all right.

Everyone in the neighborhood knew there was once a Mr. Leonard, but I never
asked Janine about him, and she never mentioned him to me. Word around our
neighborhood was that he'd been in Vietnam, a commander or something of equal
importance. Apparently, no one knew if he died or not; he just wasn't around
Spence Avenue anymore. Mrs. Ramsey next door liked to whisper some of her
theories to my mother over the fence. "Maybe Mr. Leonard got a pretty
Vietnamese girl in the family way," she speculated once. Mrs. Ramsey had heard
of such things happening to soldiers over there. "I just wondered, since your
girls play together so much, if you'd heard anything."

"I don't really talk to Mrs. Leonard much," my mother sniffed, whipping bed
sheets off the clothesline and folding them into stiff, perfect squares. "And
really, our girls don't play together that often." She turned her back to
Mrs. Ramsey then and looked sidelong at me, trying to communicate something
in that silent way that mothers and daughters are supposed to have. I rarely
understood what action was expected of me, but Mrs. Ramsey got the message.
"Well, I've got some biscuits in the oven, I better get inside."

The truth was that I can't remember ever seeing my mother talk to Mrs. Leonard. If you crossed the street from my house and walked three doors down to the cul-de-sac, you'd be at Janine's, but I have no memory of my mother
crossing that street, making that short journey or passing through the dusky
foyer into Mrs. Leonard's domain. I can't picture my mother easing back into
the dusty sitting room chair, Mrs. Leonard sitting up and offering one of her
Brand X cigarettes, my mother wiping her nose, declining gracefully before
their talk led to the antics of us girls.

But they must have had a conversation once, before Janine got permission to
go camping with us at Turlock that one fall. Maybe our mothers talked on the
telephone; I can't believe mine would have been satisfied with the mere word
of us girls. Somehow, Janine obtained the requisite consent, and it turned out
to be the seemingly uneventful trip that would change everything.

On the last night, we toasted marshmallows at my dad's grand campfire, and
Janine ate 11 of them. She had a skinny little body, but she still
managed to squeeze 11 toasted marshmallows into it, even after a hamburger
and potato salad. Then she slurped a can of grape soda and smiled and giggled
and belched a lot. She had a grape mustache and I teased her, and we ran
around chasing each other like only a couple of sugar-loaded 6-year-olds
can. When my mom tried to get us calmed down and into the camper, Janine
threw up on her, a great gooey mass of purple vomit. My mom gave me another
one of those lateral glances, and this time, I understood exactly what she

Then my mother yanked the tearful Janine over to one of the shower stalls in
the women's restroom, and Dad wiped the stinky grape slop off the camper
steps. It seemed like we sat alone by the dwindling campfire for an awful
long time. When Mom and Janine finally returned, my little friend's face was
pale, but her skin shone like a new shoe and my mother looked her over proudly
before climbing into bed with my dad. And as Janine and I lay down next to
each other in our sleeping bags, her damp curls smelled unmistakably like my
mother's shampoo. I had a hard time falling asleep that night, as I wondered
if Janine would ever smell like herself again.

Debra Fay Holton

Debra Fay Holton is a writer and performance poet who performs regularly at the GirlFest in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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