Since I’ll be just arriving in Paris and barely getting around, I decided to dig up an old post from February 2006. The number of readers we have has increased greatly over the last almost two years, so it may be not new to some of you, but should be new to most of you. It cracked me up to look at the 8 comments (four of them mine) on that post.
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, but no smell at all except what you want it to be.
Every summer, as loyal head, heart, health, hands 4-H members, me, Shirley, Tom, Dick and Harry awaited the Sheridan County Free Fair. That magical week when we loaded up the pigs, steers, chickens, vegetables, 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 check to come in the mail. Pigs and steers were our main 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. Our job was to look adorable when we paraded them through the auction ring, smiling into the crowd, doing a rigged trip here and there to get an “aw” and a higher bid. It was never entirely clear what was being sold here, though it appeared to be a popularity contest to see which dad was spending the most money at the elevator or borrowed the most from the bank (these were the normal bidders). Of course that wasn’t us, but what we lacked in cash and buying power, we made up for in charm.
This story isn´t about that. What came with the fair was the far-from-free carnival. Hoxie, Kansas was a really small town, and we got a really small carnival. But no matter how small the carnvial, with it cam the rides put together with electrical tape, the games of chance you couldn´t win and the Carnies. Carneis just scared me 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. Carnival time was the one time wen he could fleece people without moral reservation. Normally he had to check himself when he played poker because he didn´t want his friends and neighbors exiling him from the Poker Reindeer Games. Now, it seems a little ood that Dad never felt that same restraint when he schooled us in poker – taking more of my pig money than I care to talk about, until I finally realized I couldn´t win. He was too good and playing angles I didn´t even know existed – 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 and unfinished edges in the style show, he was over playing poker, drinking whiskey and taking money from the carnies. My mother, of course, hated it.
This story isn´t about that either. 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….
Just wrap your mind around that concept for a second while I explain what it looks like. If you´ve ever seen a Roulette wheel, then you´ve seen The Rat – just think bigger holes. The wheel was spun, and they released the rat from the middle. Around the rat ran until the wheel slowed down, and he would finally pick a black or red or white hole, each numbered, and dive into it. Whoever had their bet on that hole won. I´m still not sure how this game managed to avoid Police involvement in Bible Belt Kansas – it was just gambling, pure and simple, though with an added rodent spin.
Daddy would get his one night at the Wakeeney Carnival too, and that night was spent with The Rat. 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 they were out of money. Nobody ever really knew, and my Dad never told, exactly how he knew where the Rat would go, but he knew with a freakish certainty. He told my Mom it was one color of hole they always went in, but given how many holes there were available, that really doesn´t account for it, but it did eliminate a good number of the holes. 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’s a seriously mad skill every woman should have when she’s in her very active dating/nightclub years. Having seen the Rat run lots of nights, I can say I saw no pattern – it would sometimes dive for a hole quick and sometimes meander around for quite a while.
So every year my dad would come home with Rat Money, hundreds of dollars of it, and give it to my Mom. My Mom hated it. She hated the smell, said she hated spending it because it just reeked of rat. But spend it she did, still complaining, but without one bit of embarrassment, because we needed it for new school clothes.
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 dark rivers of life that nobody really talks 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 swim out and 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 and whether anyone will catch you sniffing ’round it. Amber is that smell for me. Whether it´s in Laura Tonatto Amir, Hermes Ambre Narguile (aka The Nazgul) or Parfum D´Empire Ambre Russe, it´s not the perfume itself, it´s that note that screeches “forbidden, you slut.”
Every life needs a little Rat Money smell. 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 played in the Rat Money World, but he never became part of it – instead he brought his Rat Money home to his wife and children so we could have a microwave or a new tv, a luxury we couldn´t otherwise afford. (Dante’s Inferno by Rodin)
I think that´s why I always keep amber perfumes 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 – the love, the fun, the loss, and the honor.
What’s your rat money smell?