September 10, 1945
New York Harbor
    Standing by the rail of a Queen Mary stripped for war, United States Army Captain Bernie Rosen watched the Statue of Liberty pass to port and willed Sarah to be there tonight. He’d spent most of the crossing at this railing, dreaming of their life together while taking in great gulps of fresh salt air to scrub his lungs clean. After three years amidst the smoke of shellfire, cigarettes, and the unspeakable, the ocean’s breezes had smelled tangy and sweet.

   But as Manhattan’s skyscrapers loomed, it was the city’s smog that filled his nose. He’d grown up in it—loved it—and knew all its component parts: gasoline and diesel fumes, coal smoke, soot, asphalt, rubber, roof tar, the steam from its manhole covers and the carts of its hot dog vendors and his mother’s chicken and matzo ball soup. Night after night during all those months of war, phantom-like, New York’s scents had come to him: the beer-and-whisky breath of its taverns, the peanuts-Crackerjacks-cigar smoke cloud over Yankee Stadium on a hot summer day, the fresh-baked crusts of its pizza parlors and the buttered popcorn of its movie houses and all the perfumes worn by all its women—Sara especially—the most beautiful in all the world (no matter what the Parisians might say).

   Then there was the sharp yet comforting aroma from the carriage horses just outside the Plaza Hotel, where he’d cabled Sarah to meet him tonight. He’d take her for a ride in one of those hansoms, through the leafy, fresh-cut-grass fragrance of Central Park and back down Fifth Avenue and its “Millionaire’s Row” where, he swore, someday they’d live.

   “This New York air! So unhealthful,” his mother used to say. He smiled a grim and bitter smile. Well, it was a hell of a lot more healthful than the air in Berlin right now; air that stank of scorched earth, blasted brick, and cadavers rotting under the rubble. And Berlin’s air was the fragrance of rich desserts compared to the choking miasma blanketing that city of death, Buchenwald, where Ike and Patton and Bradley had led him and his comrades-in-arms.

   Now, as the Queen tied up and G.I.s all around pressed against him straining for glimpses of loved ones, he was back there, that vileness up his nose, soul-sick and speechless before starved, emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood. Not even the pumped-bilge, wet-rat reek of these very docks—where he’d stevedored for engineering school tuition—could eradicate that stench. He was lost amidst the rubble and the cordwood and the ash heaps. Only the khaki-and-olive tide sweeping him down the gangplank and into the arms of an unexpected and heart-stopping Sarah brought him back to the here and now.

   Holding her tight, swaddled in the freshness of her Ivory-soaped skin and Breck-washed hair, he looked southward to the skyscrapers towering over the Battery. As he imagined the giants he would someday build to dwarf even them, as he dreamed of the riches that would flow from such towers to float him and Sarah onto that Fifth Avenue terrace where they would breakfast amidst the bouquet of Central Park, he thanked God that the charnel house stink and reek of ash that now lay over all of Europe would never, ever, touch these golden shores.

Born and raised in New York City, William de Rham is a graduate of Georgetown University and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. His work has appeared in RiverSedge, Neonbeam, The Battered Suitcase, Ascent Aspirations, Boston Literary Magazine, and other publications. He lives in Maine.

They say smell can be a powerful trigger. Every so often I'll encounter a scent and the here and now will disappear and I'll be back in a time and place I haven't thought of for years. I wanted to see if I could capture that phenomenon. This story was the result.



Copyright 2009