By Peter Beck
When Lou found Jesus, he stopped driving to work drunk. He used to have the afternoon shift at a post office in Brooklyn, and he would finish a 64-ounce beer on his drive from Long Island. He’d drink three 16-ounce bottles before clocking in at five, and then one more during his break. He’d have his fifth bottle after work, on the drive home, and finish the six-pack before bed. For variety, he’d occasionally replace the break beer with two or three shots of rum. Now his commuting routine was to start each drive by turning on Christian talk radio and praying: Lord we thank you for the day, and we pray we arrive safely in our respectful destinations. You are the pilot and copilot of this car. In Jesus’ precious name, amen. He often mumbles the last sentence, making it sound as though the prayer is addressed to Jesus Precious, a beautiful, endearing Christ.
For the last several years, Lou has been working at a natural and artificial flavors factory in Newark. He exits the western side of the Holland Tunnel each morning with the skyline of Manhattan behind him and its sprawling industrial skirt in front. The occasional smoke stack punches above the Pulaski Skyway, polluting the air into soft purple sunrises. Billboards along the road advertise some of the factory’s clients: Smirnoff cake-flavored vodka, Snapple fruit juices. Three electronic billboards claim to offer live information: the waiting time at the nearby emergency room (fifteen minutes), the payout of the state lotto (ninety million dollars), the current temperature in the Caribbean (eighty-eight degrees).
The chemists at Natural Flavors recently won an award for their near-perfect honey flavor, made out of acetoin, ethyl phenyl acetate, methyl phenyl acetate, clary sage oil, heliotropin, citronnelal, and 11 other ingredients.
In the break-room, Lou watches Lavaud make coffee. Lavaud recently immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti, and he spends most of his time at the factory. He gets there long before Lou arrives, and he’s always there when Lou drives home. Some parts of American culture are still mysterious to Lavaud, and he’s not sure whether his winter beanie is a woman’s hat. It has a sort of diamond pattern on it, and he suspects those diamonds may be flowers. He keeps the break-room thermos full of hot coffee, and gets suspicious, or just confused, any time someone tries to thank him.
Lou enters the production room through the laboratory. The chemists at Natural Flavors recently won an award for their near-perfect honey flavor, an imitation made out of acetoin, ethyl phenyl acetate, methyl phenyl acetate, clary sage oil, heliotropin, citronnelal, and eleven other ingredients. They’re currently working on an apple pie flavor for whiskey, which has led to multiple morning shots (Lou passes) of cinnamon sugar vodka.
Lou picks up the day’s recipes and starts to work. A potato chip company requested flavor samples, so he mixes up gallon-batches of dill, roasted garlic, and mayonnaise flavor. The last is easy to make: an inscrutable mixture of chicken and lemon flavors. On other days, Lou will produce several tons of flavor at a time: spinach for hummus dips, citrus for sodas, strawberry for cereals. Apart from strawberry, Lou’s berry flavor repertoire includes blueberry, blackberry, and dark berry; sloeberry, yumberry, and fermentaberry; triple berry, mixed berry, and dark berry—along with just plain berry. Lou can make single ingredient flavors (beef, truffle, tea) or distill the flavor of whole dishes (rice pudding, apple cobbler). He can make a cream flavor (that smells like a fruit drink) or a whipped cream flavor (that smells like cotton candy). He can make a milk flavor or a condensed milk flavor, a butter flavor or a margarine flavor. He can make a roast flavor, a smoke flavor, and nearly a dozen different kinds of vanilla. Lou sets aside small samples of every flavor he makes. Vials of liquid labeled maple, oatmeal, and cream cheese look like a futuristic breakfast buffet. Other flavors are more relatable: exhausted lemon, expressed lime.
Anything that contained the flavor “Yellow” has the amazing synesthetic ability to smell exactly like yellow looks: like tulip cake or lemon-sun sugar.
Pockets of the factory smell like whatever flavor is being mixed at the moment, though garlic and ginger can perfume the entire building. Many of the mixtures are colorless, which makes the dish-washing station at the factory a surreal stainless steel environment. Clean-looking pots and pans pile up in the sink, dripping with pungent concentrate. A pot used for mixing the flavor called “Red” instantly brings up memories of cafeteria fruit punch. A pan that held hazelnut flavor smells like an Italian bakery. Anything that contained the flavor “Yellow” has the amazing synesthetic ability to smell exactly like yellow looks: like tulip cake or lemon-sun sugar.
Back in the break-room, Lou tries to focus on his beans and yogurt. Stevie, a mechanic from the factory floor, is swinging his gimpy leg over to Melissa from the front office to hit on her as she reads Black Like Me. Eddie is talking to nobody about his God-given right to own weapons. Arthur is drumming on the table and wishing he were at band practice. Frank, the factory foreman, is leaning on the garbage and reminiscing about his family’s farm in Puerto Rico: the time his grandfather slapped him in the face with a cowpie, the time he caught his cousin with a goat. The mind wanders at the factory. Jason wishes he were in Hawaii, and keeps his surf instructor’s business card on his desk. Grace tests chemical samples for purity and remembers how much she hated communist Poland; she thinks Chernobyl is why she couldn’t have more children. Robert wonders if three decades of lying low is enough, and hopes he can move back to New York. Bob thinks about all the odors rising from the factory floor, but misses his favorite one. If he stands on his porch in March or April, the tilled-earth smell from thawed fields mixes with the smell of just-spread manure. With a mug in hand, that farm smell can get tangled up in coffee steam and then: Pennsylvania Early Spring. Lou thinks about how he used to combine ethyl alcohol and juniper flavor to make bootleg gin, and he thanks God he doesn’t do that anymore. He gets up to throw out his yogurt container, to head back to work, to mix up a batch of Strawberry With Other Natural Flavors, and says a quick prayer to Jesus Precious, amen.
Peter Beck is a writer and high school teacher in Western Massachusetts.