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Eau de Commode
by Doug Dawson

II was working as an engineer. We’re all defense contractors here, with security clearances to prove it and we write software systems for the Defense Department, though I can’t tell you too much about the details, as you might expect. Contractors can be a funny lot, especially software types and I don’t what it is, exactly, but the wildness, the silliness, the idiocy that’s there is somewhere buried – not too deep, mind you – in those very smart brains, just waiting for a chance to get out. Give you an example. This business naturally attracts a lot of ex-military types - they’re all over the place, coming out of the woodwork, you might say – and thought I’m not ex-military – I deal with them all day long. On a long corridor heading toward the back of our building there is an office where an ex-Marine colonel named Sam worked. Not being a software guy or an electrical engineer himself, he handled mostly administrative duties and he’s a good guy, with a sense of humor. On the way past his office, I would typically stop at his doorway, salute smartly and offer up a “Good Morning, Colonel, sir!” and Sam would never disappoint: he’d say, with a smile “You don’t have to salute me – I’m not in the military anymore and you - you’ve never been in the military.” To that I would reply “Just trying to show a little respect here,” to which Sam would replay “Alright, son, you’ve done your duty and now get back there and get to work.” We’d both smile and get back to our assigned tasks.

We also had a general manager in this place. His name was Ed and he would call regular meetings to let us know what was going on with new contracts and the like. The one thing he would always say at the start of said meetings was “All ears, everybody – all ears now.” I guess that was his way of saying “can I have your attention?” At any rate, his words became something we listened for, so to speak, something we all looked forward to with each meeting. Not to change the subject, but just to give necessary background here, there used to be a television show called “The Mickey Mouse Club” on TV the 1950’s and it featured all these kids - the Mouseketeers, they called them, singing and dancing and whatnot and they all wore these funny little caps with big ears on them, making the kids look a bit like over-sized mice. One of the female employees in this company I worked for actually had a whole box of these “mouse hats,” I called them, so she brought them all to work on the day of our next big meeting with Ed. So, she has us come into the conference room early, she distributed the hats around the room and by the time Ed walked in we were all sitting there, looking for all the world like over-aged Mouseketeers. “WE’RE ALL EARS, ED!” came the cry from the crowd in their seats. Ed looked nonplussed for a few seconds, as if it was all too much and so unexpected, he didn’t know what to do, then he cracked up as expected and the meeting went on as planned.

So that was just one anecdote and by now I know you are thinking “silly minds, silly people” and you would be correct, only you haven’t heard the best part. This company, like most had a whole staff of female support people – administrative assistants, documentarians and such. One was named Dolly and she had her office in front, right around the corner from the front lobby and everybody walked by her office to get to the kitchen, the front bathroom and cafeteria. Everybody in the building got to see her often and it wasn’t that she was so popular (even thought she was popular) - it’s just that she was … there, right in the middle of things, as it were, that got her all the attention that she garnered. Well, Dolly was our local fashionista: she tastefully wore a lot of makeup, the latest fashions, not to mention the perfumes: there was Tabu for awhile and after that it was Chanel No. 5, followed by Shalimar, followed by Obsession, and that’s just for starters. We all figured Dolly’s husband made good money, because it seemed that Dolly was buying more eau de colognes all the time and they weren’t cheap, not to mention the Dior accessories, a Versace dress, the Calvin Klein jeans and with the arrival of grunge in the early 1990’s, Dolly’s own interpretation of that trend, with baggy pants and loose grey sweatshirts for Casual Fridays and no doubt a stack of Pearl Jam CDs at home. Meanwhile, the local yokels who inhabited the engineering world - and our building in particular - were still in 1980’s fashion-land and still doting on Dolly’s older things, loke her Christian Dior fashions. I even heard one of the girls in the office say “yeah, she’s very demure – maybe it has something to do with her wearing that Christian Demure stuff.” I love people like these. Why? Because they’re humor is so … so … inadvertent.

We couldn’t get it out of her, whether the local Macy’s attended to Dolly’s fashion needs, whether Washington’s trendy Western Avenue stores (Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, etc.) did the honors or whether an occasional trip to the Big Apple and Bloomingdale’s 53rd Street store were to blame for the largesse of Dior, Klein and Tommy Hilfiger styles that over time graced her person and our premises. Whatever the fashions she wore, there was always a local version of Mrs. Malaprop to oblige with a gaffe, as when one woman, admiringly said “see that? That’s a Tommy Hilfinger dress, if ever I saw one.” Hilfinger, as in your index finger? I just nodded enthusiastically when I heard that blunder and you can’t pay any amount of money to get humor like that. Getting back to Dolly, wherever her clothes and perfumes came from, I heard the expression “haute couture” coming from the more sophisticated of our coterie and always used in reference to Dolly and the perfumery she was pleased to call her office, as they represented the height of fashion, at least in the government contracting arena.

My company had just been awarded a new contract, so you are thinking the stars were in perfect alignment and no doubt the universe was unfolding as it should, in terms of both our firm’s and Dolly’s fortunes, but any time it seems things are going too well one Murphy’s Law seems to intervene. No one noticed a thing wrong until a Friday afternoon and with the weekend staring us in the face it was GIGIF day and GIGIF stands for “God I’m glad it’s Friday” and that’s a University of Maryland (at College Park) term I picked up there in the 1960’s, when such terms were popular. It was the day the unthinkable happened: the day when the stars fell out of the sky, when the moon “swang” out of its orbit and something seemed to be happening that was even worse than God no longer being in Heaven. As far as I knew Dolly was working on spreadsheets and an end-of-month report required by management and as a result had kept to herself most of the day with her office door closed, when all at once I heard loud tittering coming from her office. It was the kind of laughter that could have only been caused by something riotous and when I came out of my office and looked around the corner, I saw Dolly’s office door wide open, with four girls bursting out of there practically in tears, they were laughing so hard. What could it possibly be, I thought - a social blunder, a faux pas in word, deed or action or perhaps something even more egregious, like an embarrassing pratfall, with the victim having fallen head-first into the waste basket or perhaps her lying face-down on the floor, unable to get up? If a man inhabited that office, I reasoned, it could have been several other things, like him bending over to pick something up, accompanied by the loud ripping of the seat of his trousers or maybe a phone call coming in from an illicit lover that no one was supposed to know about. Then another thought occurred to me, that maybe the peals of laughter were tears of happiness, of joy that one of them had just a lottery, or maybe that all five of them (including Dolly) had just been promoted, given a huge raise and told they would be sent to London or Paris for a vacation junket at company expense.

My mind half-heartedly tried to cope with all these possibilities, but I knew all along that the laughs were mocking, that something incredibly ridiculous had just occurred. That something was that our Dolly, of perfect form, impeccable fashion sense and unerring scent, had just slipped out of her place in the firmament above – she had become ordinary; worse than that, she had become bourgeois, commonplace, provincial, parochial – a member of the hoi polloi, the proletariat. She had become, in effect a buffoon, a clown, a figure of fun – a laughing stock. The reason for her undoing became obvious in the next few seconds, as the guffaws were replaced by catcalls – it was her cologne! Dolly’s fall from grace was accomplished with just a few well-chosen expressions: “That stuff you’re wearing - it stinks!” “Essence of Latex!” and “Scent of Camel’s Breath!” accompanied by more laughing. Our Dolly had managed to purchase a perfume, a cologne that simply smelled awful, in other words, her eau de toilette had become an eau de commode.

How could a thing like this happen? It’s like asking how great empires fall, how a warm breeze is replaced by a cold wind, how a sunny sky suddenly becomes dark and rainy. For a few seconds it seemed beyond imagining and more than a little surreal. I just had to see, or should I say smell, for myself. I sauntered over to Dolly’s door and stepped inside, to see a look of utter chagrin on her face. I took it that she had never been embarrassed like this before and as I smelled what the other girls found so … ah … unappetizing, I didn’t really notice anything that unusual about whatever scent the dispirited Dolly was wearing. I finally had to tell her it smelled ok to me and the girls were just being silly and acting like, well – girls – of the junior high school variety. Dolly seem a bit reassured that a kind word was being spoken in her defense and told me that it was nice of me to stop by and offer condolences - my word, not hers.

We never got the name of that new fragrance and naturally it never reared its ugly head in our presence again. Unwilling to risk any more sensory debacles I think Dolly went back to the tried-and-true, the old standbys and every time I walked by her after that I smelled something familiar, like the scent of lilacs and roses – or maybe Chanel No. 5. Then again could it have been Christian Demure?