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Ray Bradbury

A Scent of Sarsaparilla

Mr. William Finch stood quietly in the dark and blowing attic all morning and afternoon for three days. For three days in late November, he stood alone, feeling the soft white flakes of Time falling out of the infinite cold steel sky, silently, softly, feathering the roof and powdering the eaves. He stood, eyes shut. The attic, wallowed in seas of wind in the long sunless days, creaked every bone and shook down ancient dusts from its beams and warped timbers and lathings. It was a mass of sighs and torments that ached all about him where he stood sniffing its elegant dry perfumes and feeling of its ancient heritages. Ah. Ah.

Listening, downstairs, his wife Cora could not hear him walk or shift pr twitch. She imagined she could only hear him breathe, slowly out and in, like a dusty bellows, alone up there in the attic, high in the windy house.

«Ridiculous,» she muttered.

When he hurried down for lunch the third afternoon, he smiled at the bleak walls, the chipped plates, the scratched silverware, and even at his wife!

«What's all the excitement?» she demanded.

«Good spirits is all. Wonderful spirits!» he laughed. He seemed almost hysterical with joy. He was seething in a great warm ferment which, obviously, he had trouble concealing. His wife frowned.

«What's that smell?»

«Smell, smell, smell?» He jerked his greying head back and forth.

«Sarsaparilla.» She sniffed suspiciously. «That's what it is!»

«Oh, it couldn't be!» His hysterical happiness stopped as quickly as if she'd switched him off. He seemed stunned, ill at ease, and suddenly very careful.

«Where did you go this morning?» she asked.

«You know I was cleaning the attic.»

«Mooning over a lot of trash. I didn't hear a sound. Thought maybe you weren't in the attic at all. What's that?» She pointed.

«Well, now how did those get there?» he asked the world.

He peered down at the pair of black spring-metal bicycle clips that bound his thin pants to his bony ankles.

«Found them in the attic,» he answered himself. «Remember when we got out on the gravel road in the early morning on our tandem bike, Cora, forty years ago, everything fresh and new?»

«If you don't finish that attic today, I'll come up and toss everything out myself.»

«Oh, no,» he cried. «I have everything the way I want it!»

She looked at him coldly.

«Cora,» he said, eating his lunch, relaxing, beginning to enthuse again, «you know what attics are? They're Time Machines, in which old, dim-witted men like me can travel back forty years to a time when it was summer all year round and children raided ice-wagons. Remember how it tasted? You held the ice in your handkerchief. It was like sucking the flavour of linen and snow at the same time.»

Cora fidgeted.

It's not impossible, he thought, half closing his eyes, trying to see it and build it. Consider an attic. Its very atmosphere is Time. It deals in other years, the cocoons and chrysalises of another age. All the bureau drawers are little coffins where a thousand yesterdays lie in state. Oh, the attic's a dark, friendly place, full of Time, and if you stand in the very centre of it, straight and tall, squinting your eyes, and thinking and thinking, and smelling the Past, and putting out your hands to feel of Long Ago, why, it.

He stopped, realizing he had spoken some of this aloud. Cora was eating rapidly.

«Well, wouldn't it be interesting,» he asked the parting in her hair, «if Time Travel could occur? And what more logical, proper place for it to happen than in an attic like ours, eh?»

«It's not always summer back in the old days,» she said. «It's just your crazy memory. You remember all the good things and forget the bad. It wasn't always summer.»

«Figuratively speaking, Cora, it was.»


«What I mean is this,» he said, whispering excitedly, bending forward to see the image he was tracing on the blank dining-room wall. «If you rode your unicycle carefully between the years, balancing, hands out, careful, careful, if you rode from year to year, spent a week in 1909, a day in 1900, a month or a fortnight somewhere else, 1905, 1898, you could stay with summer the rest of your life.»


«You know, one of those tall chromium one-wheeled bikes, single-seater, the performers ride in vaudeville shows, juggling. Balance, true balance, it takes, not to fall off, to keep the bright objects flying in the air, beautiful, up and up, a light, a flash, a sparkle, a bomb of brilliant colours, red, yellow, blue, green, white, gold; all the Junes and Julys and Augusts that ever were, in the air, about you, at once, hardly touching your hands, flying, suspended, and you, smiling, among them. Balance, Cora, balance.»

«Blah,» she said, «blah, blah.» And added, «blah!»

He climbed the long cold stairs to the attic, shivering.

There were nights in winter when he woke with porcelain in his bones, with cool chimes blowing in his ears, with frost piercing his nerves in a raw illumination like white cold fireworks exploding and showering down in flaming snows upon a silent land deep in his subconscious. He was cold, cold, cold, and it would take a score of endless summers, with their green torches and bronze suns to thaw him free of his wintry sheath. He was a great tasteless chunk of brittle ice, a snowman put to bed each night, full of confetti dreams, tumbles of crystal and flurry. And there lay winter outside for ever, a great leaden winepress smashing down its colourless lid of sky, squashing them all like so many grapes, mashing colour and sense and being from everyone, save the children who fled on skis and toboggans down mirrored hills which reflected the crushing iron shield that hung lower above town each day and every eternal night.

Mr. Finch lifted the attic trapdoor. But here, here. A dust of summer sprang up about him. The attic dust simmered with heat left over from other seasons. Quietly, he shut the trapdoor down.

He began to smile.

The attic was quiet as a thundercloud before a storm. On occasion, Cora Finch heard her husband murmuring, murmuring, high up there.

At five in the afternoon, singing My Isle of Golden Dreams, Mr. Finch flipped a crisp new straw hat in the kitchen door. «Boo!»

«Did you sleep all afternoon?» snapped his wife. «I called up at you four times and no answer.»

«Sleep?» He considered this and laughed, then put his hand quickly over his mouth. «Well, I guess I did.»

Suddenly she saw him. «My God!» she cried, «where'd you get that coat?»

He wore a red candy-striped coat, a high white, choking collar, and ice-cream pants. You could smell the straw hat like a handful of fresh hay fanned in the air.

«Found 'em in an old trunk.»

She sniffed. «Don't smell of mothballs. Look brand-new.»

«Oh, no!» he said hastily. He looked stiff and uncomfortable as she eyed his costume.

«This isn't a summer stock company,» she said.

«Can't a fellow have a little fun?»

«That's all you've ever had,» she slammed the oven door. «While I've stayed home and knitted. Lord knows, you've been down at the store helping ladies' elbows in and out doors.»

He refused to be bothered. «Cora.» He looked deep into the crackling straw hat. «Wouldn't it be nice to take a Sunday walk the way we used to do, with your silk parasol and your long dress whishing along, and sit on those wire-legged chairs at the soda parlour and smell the drug store the way they used to smell? Why don't drug stores smell that way any more? And order two sarsaparillas for us, Cora, and then ride out in our 1910 Ford to

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