And Then There Was Scent
by Garrett Socol
The blazing sun baked the cement and scorched the grass, making sidewalks and lawns too hot to accommodate the soles of human feet. July 1887, the most sweltering month the city of Philadelphia had ever experienced, produced record highs and endless sweat. The temperature refused to go down with the sun; nights were often steamier than their days. For the first time in ecclesiastical history, nuns were granted special permission from the Vatican to remove the black veils and white headpieces of their habits while outdoors.
The heat was headline news. The first half of July saw forty particularly unpleasant deaths from dehydration. In a bizarre coincidence, all forty victims were forty years of age.
Reportedly, people were repeatedly warned to stay out of the sun, yet the second half of the month saw nineteen deaths due to sunstroke. In another bizarre coincidence, eighteen of the nineteen fatalities were fathers of eighteen-year-olds. The nineteenth was an eighteen-year-old redhead (with fair skin) who fell asleep on her chaise lounge under the influence of a half bottle of wine and a mild pharmaceutical.
As a result of the oppressive heat, summer smells took on an unpalatable new life. Pedestrians passed out from the stench of garbage in the gutter and rotting leftovers in the dumpsters. Hopscotch was put on hold. During the morning rush hour when every inch of sidewalk space was taken up by shining shoes in motion, close body contact added yet another hue to the hideous city stink.
Dr. Grover Beveridge, a renowned scientist who happened to be of elephantine girth, emitted a potent odor when all four hundred pounds of him were exposed to prolonged heat. Colleagues resorted to holding an onion to their nose to keep from passing out.
In addition to being a scientist, Beveridge was a savvy attorney and businessman who understood the concept of supply and demand better than just about anyone; that’s what made him a senior partner in the law firm of Wade Beveridge Wong Davies Krupp Tyler Gibby Fields Schilling Gianopoulos D’Orsay & Hedges. During the heat wave, the rotund genius recognized a genuinely desperate need, and he took it upon himself to find a solution to the body odor problem paralyzing his beloved home town.
Beveridge practically lived in his laboratory, working tirelessly, ordering platters of cold cuts and kegs of lemonade, and experimenting with every odor-reducing substance known to science. After a brief period of trial and error, he was certain he found success. Thanks to a perfect combination of chemicals, a revolutionary product was born. It was called Mum, the very first deodorant (in cream form).
Mum became a runaway sensation, as necessary to a morning routine as soap on human skin. Shop owners couldn’t keep the product on the shelves. Now there was no excuse whatsoever to smell like a sewer.
Some inventive women used Mum in unorthodox ways, like dabbing the cream on menstrual pads to reduce the chafing of the gauze. This brought comfort along with a lovely fragrance. Others, if seeking revenge on a roving, cheating husband, mixed the cream into the frosting of a cake, causing cramps, constipation, and dramatic Tourette’s syndrome-like seizures.
After landing a lucrative book deal with Knickerbocker Press (later to become G. P. Putnam's Sons), Beveridge knocked out a candid, revealing memoir. The Smell of Me topped the bestseller list for an astonishing, record-shattering one hundred weeks, catapulting him to national hero status. He was also named the wealthiest overweight man in the state. Women threw themselves at the obese billionaire, and he ended up marrying some of Philadelphia’s most scintillating bombshells including Priscilla Slate, a popular fan dancer who spent most of her time butt naked behind ostrich feathers. (Pennsylvania clergy condemned her act, declaring her “a disgrace to the good name of Beveridge.”) After his seventh divorce in five years, Beveridge was convinced by his publisher to write a follow-up to the memoir, and he completed it in record time.
All Women Are Gold-Digging Sluts didn’t achieve the runaway success of The Smell of Me, though it garnered rave reviews. Thomas Genoways of the New York Tribune: “I was afraid this would be an arch exercise in the cloying metaphysics of romantic irony, but Beveridge’s latest reminded me of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. He avoids shopworn topics, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, choosing instead to explore the elusive line between opportunism and true partnership, and he does so with the ease of a master essayist.”
William R. Quay of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: The author’s style is immensely intriguing, especially when profiling the women who shared his custom-designed bed the size of a small playground. The passages about his first wife Nola Van Nostrand are poetry dipped in vitriol. But he saves the best for his last spouse, the enigmatic Yvonne Marmaro. Like a pointillist painter, Beveridge supplies us with vivid dots of Yvonne, and it’s up to the reader to connect them into a coherent portrait of an incoherent, money-hungry hussy who can see no further than where her tongue can reach. The assignment is delicious.”
Despite the unanimous critical acclaim, book sales were tepid. The popularity of Mum, however, continued to grow as rapidly as its creator’s waistline. After adding a hundred pounds to his gargantuan frame, Beveridge could no longer climb out of bed without the assistance of his strapping Spanish bodyguard Ulu. In 1892, just five years after introducing Mum to the world, Grover Beveridge died from an overdose of dairy.
With the exception of the devastating stock market crash, two bloody world wars and the “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal, the years between 1892 and 1950 rolled by smoothly. Mum continued to keep human bodies odor free, and by the mid 1950s, a young dynamo named Helen Barnett Diserens had joined the production team. One of only two female chemistry majors who graduated from the University of Michigan, Helen hopped a train to New York to pursue the kind of electrifying life the Midwest couldn’t offer. As the train clickety-clacked east, she was struck with the sensation that she was destined for greatness.
In her tailored suit and seamed nylons, the enterprising young lady landed a job with Bristol-Myers. Assigned to the Mum account, she took the product a crucial step forward. Inspired by a popular new item on the market called the ballpoint pen, the ingenious chemist came up with a different method of applying deodorant: rolling it on. Instead of repackaging Mum, an entire new product was created: Ban Roll-On.
Even in a pre-internet universe, it didn’t take long for such an important development to find a place on the world stage. Within one day, newspapers around the globe carried the story. From the front page of a popular German publication: ist ein Korperpflegemittel, das vorwiegend in den Achselhöhlen aufgebracht wird, um unangenehmen Korpergeruch zu bekämpfen, Ban Roll-On.
The earth was a better smelling planet.
To me, Literature should make the reader think and feel and at the same time should exhibit a creative use of language. I love language. (That’s why I’m also a playwright.) There's no limit to what a writer can do with language. A favorite phrase from this story is a very simple one: “Reportedly, people were repeatedly warned…” I love the word repeatedly after reportedly, not just because of the alliteration but because they flow so naturally. The phrase makes sense. Unless the words make perfect sense, I’ll remove them even if they sound great. Sometimes I remove them begrudgingly, but I remove them.
Humor finds its way into everything I write, no matter how serious the subject. This particular piece is the third in a series of stories based on the creation of objects we take for granted. The first two explored dental floss and Roget’s Thesaurus, respectively. I often look at something and wonder (as a child might), “Who thought of this? What was the need for it? How did they create it?”
As the story suggests, the very first deodorant really was Mum (developed in Philadelphia in 1888), but everything else about the creation of Mum is fiction. Helen Barnett Diserens was a real person who created Ban Roll-On, but most everything else about her is fiction, though the ballpoint pen inspiration is true. After the initial basis in truth, I let my imagination run wild. I like to say these stories are 4% fact, 96% fiction.
Garrett Socol’s fiction has been published in The Barcelona Review, 3:AM Magazine, Pequin, Perigee, Paradigm, PANK, Hobart, Ghoti, Ducts, Ascent Aspirations, Underground Voices, JMWW Journal, kill author, Bartleby Snopes, Metazen, nth Position and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His plays have been produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Pasadena Playhouse. For 15 years, he created and produced television shows for the E! Network including “Talk Soup” and “The Gossip Show.”