Lilacs in Labelle

Lilacs in Labelle May 10, 2018


LaBelle smells like unwashed dogs.

The neighbors in the apartment building have at least two large dogs they don’t walk. They let them out twice a day to do their business, and it stays there. Their front yard is a minefield; so is the bus stop in front of their house. The sun dries it out, and the wind blows the smell our way– a smell I’ll always associate with early summer on this dismal street, in this dismal town, in the most hopeless corner of the Ohio Valley.

LaBelle smells like burnt plastic.

The houses in this part of town are old, for American houses– 1920s pre-cut foursquares, from the days before the suburb was invented. Back when America had a real middle class,  a whole class of families who could buy themselves a vacant lot and a modest house to put on it without going into debt, you used to be able to buy all the pieces for a brand new house from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Then all you had to do was build it yourself, or hire someone else to do for you.

That was back when this place had a booming economy, I’m told.

It’s not like that now.

Many of these houses are falling apart. The electricity’s not up to code, and the people who live there can’t afford to bring it up to code. They can’t afford to pay their gas bills either, not even on assistance; they end up using space heaters so they only have to pay the electric. But the old houses with the old wiring can’t take all that stress. People leave their heaters unattended at night and go to bed. The fire breaks out in the walls, and then the whole building goes up. All winter, we get fires like that, fires like something out of a cartoon– not just a little display of sparks, but bright orange flame engulfing the house. And the column of smoke rises up like a blaspheming angel, and the clouds of unholy ash descend all around. It doesn’t smell like wood smoke– that’s a comforting scent. This is the smell of a ruined house: old wood, old wires, PVC pipe, glass, asbestos, melted and reduced to fine gray powder.

It’s too warm for space heaters this time of year. The won’t be so many sudden overnight fires. But the neighborhood arsonist is still on the loose; there are still meth labs, and little children playing with fireworks. The neighborhood will always smell like burnt plastic.

If I ever get out of here, I will always associate the smell of burnt plastic with this neighborhood, and everything that happened to me here.

LaBelle smells like city chickens.

There’s no ordinance that I know of against chickens in city limits here– at least not one that’s enforced. A few of the families near the cliff keep chickens for the organic eggs. One of the children that Rosie sometimes plays with has three. They’re fat, pampered, golden-yellow hens with big appetites and gentle personalities– gentle for chickens, anyway. You can even pet them. The fattest one is named “Lady Lemon Curd.” But she doesn’t smell like lemon curd. She smells like a city chicken. The whole yard smells like city chickens: that sour, salty, not overpowering aroma of fresh chicken droppings and the careful measures taken to clean or cover up the droppings.

If I ever get out of LaBelle, I will always associate the smell of chickens with this place. I will always say “Lemon Curd” when I smell live chickens.

For a couple of weeks in late Spring, Labelle smells like lilacs.

I don’t know who planted the lilacs. It must have happened a long time ago, when the Sears and Roebuck houses were being built. People had money back then, and they planted beautiful gardens. You can still see the remains of gardens– honeysuckle, tiger lilies, redbud, bayberry, peach trees nobody picks the peaches from until they rot. In my yard there’s an old rose bush that springs up with red roses year after year, and a giant lilac bush that bursts into purple majesty in May. And there are bushes like it all over this neighborhood. They’re modest things eleven months out of the year, but in May they are transformed. The perfume rises all around, covering the stink of dogs and fires and chickens. It rises around me like incense as I go for walks at night– as if there was an angel with a censer going before me, as if I were an icon, an object of veneration and not another burdensome low-class woman trapped in a burdensome low-class town.

Many years ago, before I came to live here, a saintly friend saw me acting depressed and pushed the branch of a lilac bush in my face. “Smell that,” she commanded. “God made that for you. And you are more beautiful than these.”

The lilacs she presented were wet with rain water. I inhaled, deeply, and the water sprinkled my face. A honey bee who had been hiding among the blossoms came out, but didn’t sting me; he buzzed by, close enough that the humming tickled.

If I should have to live in LaBelle my entire life, I will always associate the smell of lilacs with somewhere else– that moment, that friend, a paraphrase of a Bible verse, asperges with rainwater, the music of a bee.

LaBelle smells like lilacs.

(image via Pixabay)

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