Home, it felt good to be home. The familiar indentations of their own bed, the comforting hum of home. The dogs. They'd gone to Chicago for the weekend. To save their relationship was the extreme way to put it, how George put it. For a fun weekend away, she said.
George paid the housesitter, the daughter of a friend. No problems? he asked.
Thanks again, he said. He paced the living room. Something smells . . . funny, he said. He inhaled. Paced, inhaled again.
Cigarettes? she asked. You think she smoked inside?
They'd asked that she not have anyone over and not smoke in the house. She could smoke outside if she threw away her butts, didn't just toss them in the yard. She could help herself to the food.
That isn't it, George said. He kept pacing. By the door: it does smell a little like smoke over here, he said, but that isn't it. Paced, smelled, paced.
Something in the fridge? she called. She was in the bedroom, unloading the suitcases, making piles of clothes, clean and dirty.
George opened the fridge, took in a deep breath. That isn't it either, he said. Paced. The more he tried, the more it bothered him. It was worse here. No smell here. Here. He felt like a kid playing hide and seek, hot and cold.
The flowers, maybe? she said.
On the counter was a vase full of sunflowers and something else, something he didn't know the name of. She'd bought them at the drugstore a week before, two maybe, and now they wilted, drooped down over the edges, looking down at the counter, the ground. George put his nose close, smelled, pulled back.
That's it, George said. Wow, he said. He coughed. Wow. That is awful.
Yeah, they get like that, she said. I guess we should have thrown them out before leaving.
George put his nose close again, smelled again.
Their last day in Chicago, on their way to the car, they'd stopped at a corner, waiting for the walk signal. Sitting there was a man selling his paintings, beautiful paintings of mountainscapes, fields of wild flowers. They reminded George of the Cascades, of Mount Rainier, of hiking and camping through the northwest growing up.
Wow, he said. These are great. You from out west? he asked.
No, no, the man said. Never seen the mountains. Just pictures.
The man flipped through his paintings, showing them all off, pulling out favorites. George thought of jumping in freezing cold glacier water pools after a day of hiking; sleeping in a sandy bed by the river, watching a meteor shower overhead. I like to make copies, the man was saying. So I can keep one. Sometimes people like to buy the copies, sometimes the originals. I can usually get more for the originals, you know? The most I ever got for one was fifty bucks. That was pretty good.
George pulled one out of the stack, held it up at arm's distance, considered. Would you take twenty bucks for this one? he asked. That's all I got.
Sure, sure, the man said, no hesitation, no considering. Twenty dollars is twenty more than I had a minute ago. The original or the copy? He pulled out a laminated copy; the original was worn from handling, the corners torn.
Can I get the original for twenty? George asked.
Sure, my man. Sure.
George pulled a twenty out of his pocket. As he got close, exchanged the bill for the painting, he got a whiff of the man, the artist. He smelled awful, like he'd soiled himself; recently or in old unwashed clothes, George wasn't sure. He tried not to make a visible face, tried not to let the man know he could smell him. Thanks, man, George said. This is great. Really. I'm going to hang it in my office, I can't wait.
The light was red again, had changed to walk then back to the red hand at least once, maybe more. George hadn't been paying attention, had lost track of time. He stood, waiting to cross the street, excited, giddy over his new purchase.
Smelling the dead flowers, George realized that was what they smelled like. That artist he'd bought the painting from on the street in Chicago. Shit.
What are you doing? she asked.
Throwing these away, George said. He held the flowers and vase in front of him, arms outstretched, head turned.
Oh, don't worry about it now, she said. Let's just get in bed.
Whatever, George said. He put the vase back, made his way to their bedroom.
All night, George dreamt of mountains, glaciers, rivers. He slept restlessly, in and out of sleep, though awake he only remembered the beauty of his dreams. He didn't understand his trouble sleeping. Morning, he awoke sweating through his shirt. He felt damp everywhere, sticky.
Will you let the dogs out, she said. Then come back to bed, 'k. Warm me up.
George got out of bed, pulled on his pants. C'mon guys, he called. The dogs got up from their bed, shook. Their collars jangled. George walked across the room to let them out. He took a deep morning breath, made a face. The smell had gotten worse, was spreading.
Out, out, George said. The dogs ran out the opened back door and George closed it behind them. He grabbed the vase and flowers, more wilted, more brown, and carried the whole thing outside. Garbage day, the trash can was out in front of the yard. Walking across the yard, George felt the cold, wet grass on his flip-flopped feet. Dumping the flowers in the trash, the vase slipped, fell in. He considered pulling it out, left it there. He closed the top, took a deep breath, and could smell only the fresh morning. It felt good. He was ready for this day. In high school, George's P.E. teacher started every Friday by looking around, calling: "It's a beautiful day to run!" Today was a beautiful day.
George stretched, took another deep breath, exhaled. He started walking down the road. At the end of their street, George looked either way, crossed the street and kept going. There were no mountains for miles in any direction, hundred of miles, states away, but still he could smell them in the air. The trees; the water; the light, clean air. He walked the length of their street, stopping at the main intersection. He watched the cars, the stoplights. George crossed, turned off the road, started walking through the trees. He was in the forest, a state park, mountains all around, birds chirping, wildlife everywhere, just out of sight. All morning, George kept walking.