Amber is the scent of time and memory
Some smells in life you remember vividly and others are the stuff of legend and exist only with a story and a very sharp memory. Amber is that smell for me.
Growing up, we were all in 4-H. Every summer, the fair would come. That was the time when we loaded up the pigs and steers and chickens and vegetables and baked goods and tea towels sewn by 8-year-old hands and took them to town, slapped an entry tag on them for judging and waited for that sweet, sweet prize money cash to come in the mail. Pigs and steers, though, were our bank for the year. After judging, they went to auction, and we got the money they sold for. Even white-ribbon hogs would net over $100, sometimes 200 or 300; steers would go for closer to $1,000 and above. This was the 1960s and 1970s, and that was a ton of cash. Our job was to look adorable when we paraded them through the auction ring, smiling into the crowd with every bid. It was never entirely clear what was being sold here. Usually it was a popularity contest to see which dad was spending the most money at the elevator or borrowed the most from the bank. This rarely was us, but we did okay based on our, um, charm?
This story isn´t about that, though.
Every fair had a carnival. Our hometown fair was really small, and we got a very small carnival. With the carnival came the rides put together with electrical tape, the games of chance you couldn´t win and the Carnies. The Carnies just scared a youngster a little, except that one swarthy teenage boy that just looked dangerous and hot as hell in his tight jeans, greased back hair and a cigarette dangling from his lips.
My dad loved the Carnies – he loved the Gypsies too, but that´s a different story. This was his one time of the year where he could fleece people unabashedly – trashing the restraint he used when he played poker locally because he didn´t want his friends and neighbors exiling him from the Reindeer Games. He never felt that kind of restraint when he taught us to play poker. He took more of my pig money than I care to talk about, until I finally realized I couldn´t win – playing angles I didn´t even know existed. He counted cards, knew the odds, was a math genius, and poker was his game.
But the Carnies didn´t know that, at least not at first. So as we took our pigs and steers out for judging and dutifully modeled that A-line shift with the bad seams in the style show, he was over playing poker and taking money from the Carnies with gleeful abandon.
My mother, of course, hated it.
This story isn´t about that either exactly. Besides our hometown fair, there was the Wakeeney fair, which was the “big one” for us. More rides (and ones that weren´t put together with duct tape), car races, a thriving midway metropolis. We always traveled for one night to the Big Wakeeney Fair. This carnival had
If you´ve ever seen a Roulette wheel, then you´ve seen The Rat. Just think bigger holes and the smell of ratshit. The wheel was spun round, and then they released the rat. The rat ran around the wheel as it slowed down and would finally pick a black or red or white hole to dive into. The person who had their money on that hole won the pot. I´m still not sure how this game managed to avoid Police involvement in Bible Belt Kansas – it was just gambling, pure and simple. Maybe games of chance that involved rats had some archaic exception in the Kansas Statutes. But run this rat gambling game for several years, they surely did.
Daddy had his one night at the Wakeeney Carnival too, and that night was spent with The Rat and the Carnies. He only had one night because they would never let him play again that year, and he had to wait until the next year with new Carnies who didn´t know him. More than once, they made him leave midway through the night because he was cleaning them out of money.
Nobody ever really knew, and my Dad never told exactly how he knew where the Rat would go, but as sure as I knew he loved whiskey, he knew where that rat was going. He told my Mom it was one color of hole they always went in, but given how many holes there were, that really doesn´t account for it. He also said he knew which direction the rat would run once it came out. Being an expert on Rat turning behavior doesn´t explain it either, though I’m thinking that a seriously mad skill every woman should have. I saw the Rat run, and it would sometimes dive for a hole quick and sometimes meander around for quite a while. My best guess is, as with humans, rats have predictive behavior, and he found the pattern in Rat Roulette.
So every year my dad would come home with Rat Money, hundreds of dollars of it, and give it to my Mom. Of course, my Mom hated it. She hated the smell, said she hated spending it because it just reeked of rat. But spend it she did, comfortable with the hypocrisy of complaining while spending it – because her babies needed school clothes and supplies.
Rat Money Smell is what sin and whiskey and forbidden sex smells like. It´s the shady side of life, the smoky biker bar full of bad men that look irresistible, the part that nobody really wants to talk about too much because it is fun, and we all go there from time to time and hope we don´t get caught up in the Rat Money current and forget to find our way home.
I don´t remember what the Rat Money really smelled like, but it´s my phrase for every smell that I identify with that something that makes you wriggle up up your nose and look the other way while casting furtive backward glances trying to figure out what it is and if it´s as much fun as it looks like and hoping nobody will catch you sniffing ’round it.
Amber is Rat Money smell for me. Whether it´s in an amber perfume like Laura Tonatto Amir, Hermes Ambre Narguile or Parfum D´Empire Ambre Russe, it isn’t the perfume itself, it´s that amber note. All three of these perfumes are lovely renditions with amber as a strong note in them.
It is mixed in with the sweetness, the passion, the sorrow, the loss and regret. It meanders through all of our lives like cigarette smoke, clinging sometimes to what we wear, but never to who we are. My daddy understood that. He would play in the Rat Money World, but he never became part of it. He brought his Rat Money home to his wife and children..
I think that´s why I always keep amber perfume around. Sometimes I open up a drawer and I smell it, and I think, ah, Rat Money, and I remember my dad and all the lessons he taught us about life, love, loss, compromise and honor.