what a bad smell in the back of the car revealed about her secret rituals

Reading: Everything and Nothing To Do with That Car Smell


Everything and Nothing To Do with That Car Smell

What a terrible odor in the trunk of her car taught her about herself and her next step in life

By Maureen Pilkington

I had a roomy silver Mercedes sedan and when it came rolling up the driveway it had that X-factor, the way certain dogs prance simply because they know they are show dog material. My son’s friends loved it, too; the key players from our local high school football team eyed the car like it was a girl. I even let them use it once in an emergency — their kind of emergency — after I got the emergency text.

We all believed only really good songs came on the radio when you drove it. Other cars were lemons that way.

I parked it outside our garage so I could easily lug in the grocery bags, our view coming at me like a tidal wave in slow motion: the Mill Pond reflecting clouds as sluggish as cake batter, the narrow channel of the marina curling into the Long Island Sound, deckhands tossing rope.

So what was that smell? I looked at the ghoulish rhododendron and figured the soul of a dead animal lay beneath. Was it the stocky gopher I watched from the kitchen window whose fur rippled as he worked his tunnel system down by the seawall?

My husband traveled incessantly in what I called the wild west of investing, so presenting these house issues during our two-minute updates didn’t seem worth it. He was gone so much I got shy when he returned. I was writing on the sly since finishing graduate school, the frame of my schedule gone. I worked mostly in my car on the dash while waiting for football practice to end, or basketball, or track.

There was a blue BMW around town with a license plate that said Mom’s Desk. My car, however, felt like Mom’s Villa. I arrived early at pick-up and parked as far from the maddening parking lot crowd as I could, as if I, too, stunk.

I sniffed around the car, and like all suburban smells, I expected it to drift off with the next wind. I looked down at my feet and saw the spilled nuggets of koi food (to enhance vibrant color) that dropped in a trail from our garage to my husband’s fish pond that held koi as attentive to him as Labs.

Since my writing time came in small bits, I wrote short stories: a man who unknowingly drags his wife when the hem of her long coat gets caught in the car door on New Year’s Eve; a young woman who drives to the cemetery and brings her father back from the dead between one and three in the afternoon as he drifts through doors and windows evading her questions, leaving a musty odor.

In the midst of parenting and writing and various other jobs, I cooked too much, also in secret, although the football team was on to me on that one. I felt the pull of grocery stores the way some feel the pull of a shoe department. I loved seeing finished work: apple tarts, daily breads, and muffins, homemade manicotti each a delicate crepe.

When guests asked me who my caterer was, I said the local one.

My mom found me painting scenes on brown paper stretched across the garage (prospective Christmas wrapping paper) and asked, “Where do you get these ideas and why are you hiding them?”

I had a husband who knew Palo Alto better than our own town and worked with women who carried Louis Vuitton briefcases as slim as slide rules, yet I was the one under her suspicion.

Now the umbrella tucked under my driver’s seat had the dead-mouse-in-the-wall smell, too. I started parking the car on the other side of the driveway away from the stench-in-hiding and used the old station car whenever I had to go out. My writing villa unusable, I was feeling increasingly “off.”

One Sunday afternoon I returned home from a walk and my husband, red-eye-flight-cranky, was hunched over the open trunk of my car, a bandana tied around his nose, flinging objects like fireworks falling in the air behind him: a deflated football, chips, books from my traveling library. I felt like a wife on the Sopranos having done something really, really bad. As I got closer I knew the koi were lined up at the stone lip of the pond waiting for their master to bring pellets — and evidence.

My husband picked up his leaf skimmer and poked into the deepest area of the trunk, moving it the way a chef maneuvers his pizza stick into the coal oven. With a grunt he pulled out his catch, balancing the lump in a plastic bag until it rolled off and onto the ground. He jabbed at it, pushing back the plastic bag with the stick to reveal what was inside.

One whole raw chicken turned gray.

Susan Sontag said, “To write is to know something.” I write down what I see and my perceptions, real or imagined, will show me the truth — the back of a baby’s head, a vulnerability; monks singing Gregorian chant, a melody to calm my thoughts. When I looked at the chicken that had been forgotten in the trunk of my car, I saw my rituals, standing still in time, keeping me whole. They encouraged me to show up for myself. To be fully present with a certain joy.

They had become a secretive spiritual practice and any exposure, I thought, would spoil them.

We had to sell my car with the immortal smell.

In what seemed like an instant, our kids left for their own careers. My husband travels a tad less. I drive a two-seater. And I am writing a novel at a desk, in an office that overlooks the koi, listening to good songs if the satellite stars are aligned just right.

  1. Linda Simones

    I love how this captures so much of a life in such a short space. Bravo, Maureen.

  2. Nancy Evelyn Swallow

    Maureen Pilkington unfailingly captures how the mundane shines light on the ethereal — in ways you would not otherwise see or understand. This is wonderful!

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