The five friends were sitting around Marta's kitchen table, toward the end of dinner on a cold Sunday night in March. They were well into the third bottle of the Polish Bullsblood wine that Sam had brought. The topic of conversation was memorable smells.
"The most comforting smell on earth was my grandma's hot pastry, baking," Marta sighed. "Her strudel had such integrity. And if I asked Gram, she'd cut out pastry leaves and flowers to bake on top, and a M for my name--"
"How precious," Josh said bitingly. "Well, my favorite scent is the way my first girlfriend smelled. She was an arty bohemian girl with hair in her armpits."
"Why are we talking about your love life when I'm trying to eat?" Anne said, looking at her scone.
"Well, I love the smell of wet dog,"said Carol, who always hated to be outdone. "I grew up with a Lab/shepherd mix named Sluggo. Sluggo was one of those big, goofy, slobbery, happy dogs that make you feel good just looking at them.
"He did smell truly awful when he got wet, but I never minded. He lived with us for years and years. His favorite thing was to go out in the rain and roll in the rotting mulch in the garden. He would stink terribly. Then my mother would scold him, and he'd be ashamed and try to force his way behind the leather armchair to hide. But he was way too big. So my Sluggo would sit close BESIDE the armchair, and hope for the best.
"Anyhow, it rained the day after he died, and there was no reek of wet fur. I looked at the armchair and started to cry. I said to my mother, 'Would it have killed us to move that chair out a couple inches, so he could hide there when he wanted to?' She thought I was crazy."
Jennie, who still missed and often spoke of her noble Skipper many years after his death, had tears in her eyes.
"I'm the only person in the world who can't stand the smell of popcorn," Sam said hastily. He detested sentiment, and thought Sluggo had brought them dangerously close. "This began when my parents and I moved here from Poland.
"Friday nights my mom would make up a big vat of popcorn for our cozy American evening at home, as she'd seen on television. But my Dad's idea of entertainment was to insert his butt into the La-Z-Boy and tell me about the 10 thousand years back in Poland during which our serf ancestors had been treated like crap in their godforsaken hovel on the landlord's estate. There had been a long line of vodka-crazed psycho landlords, but my father called them all by the same name: an unpronounceable Polish word that means Butthole in the Big House."
"What a coincidence," Marta said. "My Lithuanian ancestors also had a landlord called Butthole in the Big House."
"In Poland," Sam continued, "the males in my family, the Dudeks, were traditionally horse grooms. The landlord's idea of fun was to kick a Dudek to death with his jackboots if the horse wasn't looking properly twinkly-eyed. You would think it would have occurred to somebody to leave. I said this to my mother, and she said, 'We must respect their struggles.' I understood this. I knew my ancestors had modest expectations. They thought things were going good if nobody had recently been flayed alive by the bullwhip.
"But every Friday night in America, as my dad ate popcorn and told me about our sacred dead, I silently raged," Sam said. "I was a merciless little American, and I wanted to enjoy my life. Doing this around my dad was like trying to learn to dance while having to edge very carefully around a huge bucket of blood which stood dead center in the livingroom. It was like we left Poland but never really got away.
"So that's why I dislike the smell of popcorn," he said.
Sam's friends stared at him in silence. Then Carol leaned forward and very gently poured the last bullsblood wine from the last bottle into his glass. He swirled it, breathed in the harsh, bitterly sweet bouquet, and drank it down.