Short Fiction

Penny Smells Smoke

by Sara Sha

I smelled smoke.

I tried to find its source by smelling everything. I smelled our candles, I smelled the motor of the electric fan that we used in the living room, and I even smelled the crisper drawer in the refrigerator. I had Marty check the furnace and change the filters and I cleaned the heat registers. Still, the scent lingered.

“It’s definitely a cigar,” I said to Marty later.

“I don’t smell anything,” he said, not looking up from his tablet. This didn’t surprise me. He hasn’t been able to smell anything since he had succumbed to the coronavirus several weeks ago.

I stepped outside onto the porch and looked around. Maybe one of the neighbors had taken up cigars? But there was no one outside, only Bart across the street, pulling dandelions out of his lawn with a fork.

“You know pollinators love those,” I called to him.

He didn’t respond and I went back into the house.

“It says here that smelling smoke when there isn’t any is a sign of a brain tumor,” Marty said, pointing at his screen.

“I don’t have a brain tumor.”

“Maybe I’ve taken up smoking in secret.”

I gave him a look.

But the thought of a brain tumor bothered me. I sat on the porch that night examining more of my behaviors — my agitation, my tendency toward obsession. Marty attributed it to my retiring too early. But I had been more than happy to leave the workplace. The things I thought were important weren’t important to the younger, newer coworkers and I felt like I didn’t belong any more.

I remembered having an older friend tell me how alarmed she was when she felt she didn’t belong in the world any more, how she felt herself becoming outdated and different and irrelevant, and how I had told myself I would never become irrelevant. I would stay informed, I would fight to remind people that I was here, that I had value. But here I was years later, suddenly ignorant of all of the various social media apps, unsure of how to find a PBS station on my television, even feeling a sense of unsteadiness when faced with the drink options at a coffee house. I didn’t know how to keep my promise of fighting, and instead I simply became agitated and anxious.

“I see Tammy from across the alley didn’t come home last night,” I told Marty after I came back from one of my morning walks. Marty teasingly calls it my “morning patrol”, but I can’t help that he doesn’t care what happens in our neighborhood. He’s more interested in carving wooden horses for his miniature merry-go-rounds.

“Maybe she’s visiting her mother,” he said, carefully carving lines in a tiny horsetail.

“Marty, her mother died last winter.” I didn’t like getting impatient with him, but he never remembered anything. Maybe he was the one with a brain tumor.

“Visiting friends?”

“Judging by the amount of liquor bottles in their recycling bin, it seems more likely that they were having problems at home and she needed to get away.”  Such a shame. They have a beautiful 2-year-old little boy, born after years of infertility. 

“You remember they had a party last week for his 30th, right?”

I didn’t.

I left Marty and headed outside to fill the bird feeders. I saw the Rawlings had their back door hanging wide open, so I went over to investigate. There had been a burglary over on 10th Street just last week.

“Hellooooo!” I called. “Emily? Are you okay?”

I heard a rustling in the garage.

“Just unloading groceries, Penny,” Emily said, carrying brown paper bags in her arms.

“Oh,” I said, a little disappointed. “Just making sure you’re okay.”

“I appreciate it, Penny. Have a nice day.”

“You’re turning into a cliché,” my daughter had said accusingly over the phone. She moved away for college years ago and now only came home for holidays. “You’re the neighborhood busybody always getting into other peoples business.”

“I’m not getting into other peoples business, ” I said. “I’m just keeping an eye out.”

Marty and I were eating our sandwiches in front of the TV when I smelled it again.

“You really can’t smell that?” I asked.

“I thought I smelled something, but it might be the olive loaf,” he said, peeking under the corner of his bread. He had a thin streak of mayonnaise smeared on his upper lip.

I put my sandwich down and headed up the stairs slowly, then stopped. “It’s right here,” I said. “Right here it’s strongest.”

Marty looked at me and scratched his head. “Penny, I think this has gone on long enough that maybe you should talk to your doctor.”

I didn’t respond.

Maybe he was right.

The next day while he was out at the hardware store picking up sandpaper, I scrubbed the shower and floor of the bathroom. I couldn’t smell the smoke over the lemony cleaner, and I was thankful. The smoke was apparently an indication of my impending demise.

Maybe this is just the way the world works, I thought as I picked strands of hair off my sponge. We enjoy a few years of being the center of the world with our slang being what everyone else is saying, our clothes what everyone else is wearing, our daily life surrounded by everything familiar. Then quietly, slowly, imperceptibly we cease being aware. We don’t realize our jeans are out of style. We’re the only ones telling people they are da bomb. And eventually, instead of seeing us as people with vibrant stories and lessons learned and wisdom to share, people look the other way when they see us shuffling up to them with a walker, our bodies riddled with cancers and tumors and imbalanced blood sugars. 

After I rung out my sponge and dumped my bucket into the toilet, I stepped out into the hall and the smell was back, stronger than ever. I stood there, my hands on my hips.

Where the hell was it coming from? It was just too strong to be my imagination.

I looked up at the ceiling and my eyes rested on the framed hole that led to the attic. It wasn’t an attic, really. When we bought the house years ago and looked up there, all that was there was yards and yards of pink fluffy insulation.

This was one place we hadn’t checked for smoke.

I went to the basement and pulled the ladder off its hook and hauled it awkwardly up the stairs and set it up under the hole in the hallway ceiling.

Then I paused.

Why on earth would I look into a place that hadn’t been looked at for years, especially when I’m home alone? But it was light out, I told myself, and Marty would be home soon.

I climbed the ladder and popped open the plywood square that blocked the hole. I slowly raised myself up to look inside the space.

“Whaddaya lookin’ at,” a voice said, and I jumped, barely keeping my balance.

There in the corner, in a thin smoky haze, sat a man in gray pants and a white tee shirt. He looked to be in his fifties, had thinning brown hair and just a slight paunch. In his left hand, he held a cigar.

My first instinct was to jump off the ladder and run, but I remembered I was the one who belonged here.

“Who are you and what are you doing here in my house?” I said with more courage than I felt.

“YOUR house?” he challenged me, then he had a look of realization as he put his cigar to his mouth.

“This explains the smell,” I said.

He glanced at me then looked at the cigar in his hand. “Filthy habit. I should have given it up years ago.”

“How did you get in here?” I asked, hardly containing my alarm. “And why?”

“I am Frank, and I used to live here, ” he sat up straighter, and ground the end of his cigar in an ashtray that was sitting on a small table next to him.

That would explain how he got here. He probably still had keys. But hadn’t Marty and I changed the locks when we bought the house? I couldn’t remember.

“Sir, you need to leave. “

“It’s not that easy.”

“What do you mean?  I don’t know how you got up here, but you can leave the way you came.”

He laughed a deep, phlegmy laugh.

“I don’t see what’s so funny,” I said.

“Lady, you could say I never left.” He started laughing again and I felt my face turn red.

“You mean to tell me you’ve been living in our attic for 30 years and I never noticed until now?” I felt my voice shake then find itself.  “Tell me how you’ve eaten, slept, stirred all this time without us noticing.”

I heard a door slam and was relieved that Marty was home. “That’s my husband. If you don’t leave, we’ll call the police.”

“Lady–“

“Penny. My name is Penny.”

“Penny, I left the house for a while and just came back recently because I needed to take care of something. Unfinished business, as they say.”

“Well, do what you need to do and GET OUT,” I said.

“That’s what I intend to do, kiddo.” He picked up the stub of his cigar and struck a match, puffing and puffing as the end grew orange.  “I’ll be out of your hair.”

He was clearly in no hurry. I backed down the ladder and carefully replaced the wooden square in the frame. I thought about telling Marty, but then paused. What if Frank didn’t exist, along with the smoke? I mean, what were the chances a man would be living in our attic? Since we retired, we were home a lot of the time and sometimes Marty and I got in each other’s way. A third person would certainly be noticed.

I decided that I would see a doctor.

I carried the ladder down the stairs, walking by Marty who was sitting on a kitchen chair taking his shoes off.

“What were you doing with the ladder?” he asked.

“Oh, just –” I waved my arm around. I couldn’t think of an answer and Marty didn’t pursue it, but I did catch him sniffing the air.

That night, I sat up in bed. “He said he had unfinished business,” I thought, remembering stories and programs on television. “Frank is a ghost.”

This explained everything, how he got up into the attic, how we never noticed him moving around. It didn’t explain how I could smell the cigar, but I would ask Frank about that tomorrow.

“I don’t worry about those things,” Frank said simply when I asked him.

I made visiting Frank part of my daily routine. When Marty went out for a walk or for errands, I’d climb up to the attic and settle myself in the lawn chair I’d set near the hole.

I learned that he’d bought this house in 1927 when it was new and that he’d raised six children in it. I learned that he worked at a foundry that used to exist just four blocks from here. I learned that his wife was named Lilly and she raised chickens in the backyard. I learned that the neighbors met regularly for coffee on their porch on Saturday mornings and let their children play outside in their pajamas. I learned that Lilly sometimes threw a pan at him on the rare occasions he lost track of time at the bar. I learned that Lilly made delicious pineapple upside down cake that made the whole house smell like buttery tropical goodness, and that she played ukulele for the children at bedtime. I learned Lilly died suddenly and their family was never the same after that.

“I handled it poorly,” Frank said. “I figured the kids were old enough to fend for themselves and I let them, even though the youngest was only 8 years old.”

“Do any of them ever drive by the house and think about you?” I asked.

He laughed. “They might think of me and my failings on Father’s Day, but I doubt they go beyond that.”

I considered this.

“Frank, what is your unfinished business?”

“That, kiddo, is something you don’t need to concern yourself with.”

That night as I made supper, I looked around my kitchen and imagined Lilly carefully and lovingly laying pineapple slices in a pan. But now all traces of her were gone. The walls had been painted multiple times since then, the flooring replaced, the backsplash redone, her handy kitchen gadgets probably rested in an antique store somewhere.

I imagined my kitchen one hundred years from now, with all traces of me gone, my modern appliances considered quaint and useless, my thoughtful remodel painted over, or maybe the entire house will be gone by then.

I felt so temporary.

As I buttered a slice of bread, I considered that maybe it was okay to become quaint and outdated, just like our landlines and VCRs. Trying to constantly keep up gets exhausting, so it feels good to cling to those things that are familiar and comfortable. And so we become comfortable and quaint and outdated and eventually fade away, just like Frank and Lilly, who lived colorful robust lives on this same property, but are now mostly forgotten.

“You know, we’ll be forgotten a hundred years from now, ” I said to Marty as I put a sandwich in front of him.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing,” I said, but I felt something inside me release. I felt a sense of peace as I imagined the world continuing to evolve without my needing to evolve along with it.

The next morning, I wanted to talk to Frank about the after life, hoping to find some answers about why we live and what happens when we die, but he was gone. I looked around the attic and there was no trace of him, no chair, no table, and no cigar smoke. I smiled to myself as I figured he must have completed his business and moved on to whatever was next.

As I carried my lawn chair from the attic to the garage, I took a moment to look at the sky and think about what might be beyond it, and I thought fondly of Frank and Lilly and their family.

Then I noticed someone had left a pair of shoes in the alley, and I went to investigate. The Johnson children were always losing their shoes. It must be maddening for their parents, especially since their dad just started a new job that I suspect pays less than the one he had before.