The Smell of J.D. Salinger

by Mark Spencer


I was living with Rose in her four-bedroom double-wide in Kentucky, hiding, as always, from the tabloids and a few scientists, when I got this idea that I’d sniff out J.D. Salinger.

I was lying on the extra-long leather sofa, my furry size thirties hanging over the end, reading The Catcher in the Rye. Rose was baking chocolate-chip cookies and had day-time TV blaring. On every channel were freaks guilty of some perversion or heinous violence — human beings whose recklessness ruined the lives of everyone around them and who were always sorry about the things they did but felt sorry mainly for themselves.

And you wonder why I hide.

Rose came into the living room, handed me a plate of warm cookies, and straddled her Harley, which she brought inside for safe keeping when she wasn’t out riding, and looked at the TV. “Thank God, we’re not like those people,” she said.

Sweetness melted in my mouth. My senses buzzed. My hair follicles tingled. I closed my eyes, opened them. “Hey, babe,” I said. “I’m thinking of looking up J.D. Salinger.”

“Oh, yeah? Cool. Tell him Catcher is what made me want to be a biker. A girl friend of mine, it made her want to be a nun.”

I was staring at the glowing white ceiling, more cookies warm and sweet in my throat. “Is she?”

“She’s a hair stylist instead, but she dated a guy named Holden for nearly a year just because of his name. Then she found out his name was really Harold. He knew what he was doing, the big phony. Hey, you aren’t lying about your name, are you?”

I looked at Rose, who had just turned twenty. She was lying back on the Harley, her feet propped up on the handle bars. She was blessed with muscular thighs that came a mile out of her black leather short shorts. I said, “Some people call me Sasquatch, you know. You can call me that if you want.”

She looked off into space for a moment. Her bosom (another blessing) strained against the silver snaps of her leather halter. She shook her head. “Nope. ‘Sasquatch’ is too hard to say in the heat of the moment. ‘Big’ is more appropriate anyway.”

Her blue eyes looked me over. She grinned. Her head was shaved, and the word “BRAIN” was tattooed on the front, back, top, and sides in bold green letters so that guys would know she had one. She explained this to me the moon-lit night we met in the midst of the great red woods of Northern California.

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “Meeting Salinger would definitely be cool, Big, but what makes you think he’ll talk to you? He’s as much a recluse as you are.”

I stared at my hairy toes and long toenails for a moment. “I don’t know. I think we have stuff in common. I think we could be buddies.”

* * *

It took me about three weeks to get to his house in Cornish, New Hampshire. I stayed in wooded areas as much as I could and traveled mostly at night, crossing interstates with the headlights of tractor trailers bearing down on me. A farmer in Pennsylvania took a shot at me as I crossed his corn field.

Probably the worst thing that happened was that a hiker with a camera got a picture of me taking a leak. The guy was pretty far away, but still, it was humiliating.

It was a rough trip, but I had my copy of The Catcher in the Rye, and I’d read it when I got tired or lonely or scared.

* * *

The first time I saw J.D. he was in his vegetable garden behind his house. The place was isolated on the side of a hill lush with pines and cedars, and there were “no trespassing” signs everywhere. I was pretty far back in the woods, but I have really good eyes. I can smell better than anything on earth, but that doesn’t mean I’m half blind like a dog.

Jerry was just standing there, looking down at his tomato plants, tall and white-headed with deep lines in his face and big dark sad eyes. He was fastidiously dressed in clothes from the L.L. Bean catalogue. I lifted my nose. He smelled good. Soap. A little hair oil. Aftershave. His sweat was tart but also sweet.

I shouted and waved from a distance so as not to startle him into a heart attack. “Mr. Salinger, Mr. Salinger.”

He looked around, turning at the waist, his feet firmly planted, one hand on his hip, the other up to an ear. “I’ve only one good ear!” he shouted back. As I got closer, he looked me over, frowning, the lines in his face deep, but he didn’t move.

“Mr. Salinger. I’m a great admirer of your work.”

“Jesus. You’re not a reporter, are you?”

“No. I’m Big Foot.”

“Well, then you should understand how I feel about reporters.”

“I certainly do, Mr. Salinger. Definitely. They can’t let you just live your life.”

“Neither can these damn bugs.” He looked down at his tomato plants. They were being devoured by little black bugs. “Nothing stops them. They just keep coming.”

“I’m sorry.” I reached down and plucked one off a leaf and crushed it between my teeth. “Tastes like chicken.”

He smiled at me. “You want to come in?” He nodded toward the house. Just then his wife came out on the deck, saw me, and screamed.

“It’s all right, Colleen!” he hollered as she ran back inside. “It’s not a reporter!”

Colleen was young and pretty.

I said, “Some people don’t warm up to me for a while.”

“Well, if you’d get a haircut... and shave...”

“My girlfriend likes me this way.”

“Well...” He shrugged his boney shoulders. “Whatever it takes to keep the girls happy, eh? I’d better go see about Colleen.”

“Okay. Sorry I upset her.”

“Don’t worry about it. You roller skate?”

“Not lately.”

“I’ll be at the roller rink in town later. I’d like to hear how you manage to avoid the press.”

“I’ll wait out in the parking lot until you’re done.”

I watched him move toward his house. An old man. A great man.

* * *

That night, when I showed up at the roller rink, I had on a trench coat and a red hat with ear flaps and slouched around the parking lot, trying not to look so tall in case someone caught sight of me. I stood in the parking lot and looked through a window and could see Jerry roller skating to Big Band music — Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey. His arms rose like a ballet dancer’s as he did graceful pirouettes and skated backwards, the ends of his long fingers catching the light from the disco ball hanging from the ceiling. The deep lines of his face had almost disappeared.

When he wasn’t skating, he kneeled before little kids and tied the laces of their skates. Then he would pat their heads and give bits of encouragement as they headed for the gleaming hardwood floor.

Some times, when he was skating, he would see a youngster about to take a spill, and Jerry would glide over and catch them.

When the music switched to Britney Spears, he came outside, his skates slung over his shoulder. He smiled at my hat, told me he liked it. Then he told me that Colleen had to go nurse her sick grandmother and would be gone indefinitely. He said that, although he was a recluse, he hated to be entirely alone. I nodded my head and told him I knew exactly what he was talking about. He reached up and gripped my shoulder and said, “I think you and I are landsmen. Kindred spirits.”

He invited me to stay in Cornish with him, but I missed Rose, so we drove Jerry’s BMW to Kentucky.

* * *

Rose acted funny from the start. She kept staring at Jerry and asking him questions like, “So where do the ducks go?” Jerry would shrug and smile and read his New York Times. But she was an excellent hostess and seemed to like him. She cooked chili and burgers and pork chops and chocolate pies.

Jerry ate everything with grins and soft moans. “My compliments to the chef, Rose,” he said. “You should open your own restaurant. B.F. and I will wash dishes for you.”

His eyes often followed her whenever she moved her fine body across a room, but he looked at her in a nice way, not a dirty way, more like he was appreciating a great painting or a sculpture.

We drank beer and watched old movies that Jerry loved, like The 39 Steps and Singing in the Rain. One night Jerry danced with Rose in front of the TV. He moved with the grace of Gene Kelly. Rose moved... well, like Rose — she didn’t have to do anything special. Jerry twirled her around in the cramped space. He sidestepped the coffee table, the end table, her Harley, the magazine rack. Rose glowed, her blessed bosom gleaming with sweat before they finished. I’m not a dancer myself. I tend to trip over my own feet. But watching Jerry and Rose made me so happy I had to wipe away a tear.

* * *

Jerry and I took daily walks in the woods back of Rose’s double-wide. If we walked far enough, we could see a clearing where big brick homes were being built for rich commuters to Louisville. We stood and watched brick layers and carpenters at work on what were really beautiful houses.

I told Jerry about things I had never mentioned to anyone. He listened, nodding his long head as I talked about my lonely years in the forests of the Northwest and about my passionate but ultimately empty flings with female campers and hikers.

“You have a good woman now,” he told me. “You have time to read books, listen to good music, watch movies, think about life. The press hasn’t found you. You’re doing all right. You’re lucky. And you have a buddy.”

I looked at him. I wanted to hug him. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m lucky.”

* * *

Then one night about two weeks after Jerry and I rolled in from New Hampshire, Rose served Polish sausage and stared at Jerry more than usual. Later, in bed, she turned to me, laid a hand on my chest, and said, “Big, I’ve got to tell you something. Something I should have told you when you first got back from your trip.”

I had a bit of a beer buzz, but it dissipated quickly as I jumped to the conclusion that she was about to make a confession along the lines of her sleeping with some guy — some human being! — while I was in New Hampshire. I growled low but long.

“It’s not what you’re thinking, Big. It’s about that guy sleeping in the guest room.”

My mouth dropped open. My lungs collapsed. “Sonny?” (Jerry had told me to call him “Sonny.” It was what people called him when he was young.)

“Honey, that guy is not J.D. Salinger.”

“What? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Salinger is a health food freak, for one thing. He doesn’t eat Polish sausage. Or any of the other things I’ve been cooking. The real J.D. Salinger practically lives on sunflower seeds and drinks his own urine. Not Lone Star Beer!” She paused. “Listen. I’ve been reading stuff about him. His daughter’s memoir and another by some chick he shacked up with when she was only eighteen and he was fifty-three.” Rose sighed and laid her palm against my cheek. “The real Salinger is kind of a creep. Like everybody else in the world.”

I was trembling. “You can’t believe everything you read.” “I’m sorry, Big. I just thought you’d want to know the truth.”

* * *

After a while, I knew I was not going to fall asleep, so I got up and quietly ambled into the guest room. I looked down at Sonny, his hair dyed black now, his face smooth in sleep.

I inhaled his scents, and they were the same as the first time I smelled him: soap, hair oil, aftershave, his tart but sweet sweat. Now mingled with all these smells was the scent of beer.

I remembered that first day I met him in his garden and that night at the roller rink. I had a vivid image of him kneeling before a little girl with blonde pigtails and tying the laces of her skates. He made sure her skates were snug but not too snug and that her laces were double knotted. He patted her blonde head, and he said, “You’ll skate like a princess. I know it.”

I stepped out of the guest room and looked down the hall toward my and Rose’s room and then looked back in at Sonny. The beer just made him smell even better.


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Spencer

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