“Incense Summer”

A Short Story

Incense Summer
J Guenther

Julia doesn’t talk about it, but she still thinks of that summer as “when I learned about incense.” Many things happened between June and September that year at Benison College, but she remembers the incense most of all.

Julia wanted extra spending money for her sophomore year, so she worked in town that summer, Monday through Saturday, at “Wooten’s Card Shop.” Wooten’s, known to students as “the Woo-Woo store,” sold goods ranging from greeting cards and posters, to crystals, candles, tarot decks, and Zigzag cigarette papers.

One afternoon during Julia’s first week, an elderly man visited Wooten’s. He wandered about for twenty minutes, then approached the counter with a tiny box of “Dr. Gupta’s Assorted Meditation Incense Cones,” one of the least expensive items in the store. “Just this, Julia,” he said.

“How’d you know my name?” she asked, tilting her head as she rang up the incense.

He smiled and waved a tremulous hand towards her. “Nametag.”

She looked down and laughed, blushing. “I forgot I had it on.” Julia thanked him and went back to reading her book.

He returned the next day and bought another box of Dr. Gupta’s Assorted Meditation Incense. Julia smiled. “You must meditate a lot.”

“No, I just like incense. It conjures up memories of past times and people I’ve cared about.”

He appeared every day the rest of the week. “You know,” Julia said on Saturday, as she rang up that day’s incense, “the store gives a twenty percent discount if you buy ten boxes at a time.”

“Thank you, but I’m not sure I’d use it all up. I might get tired of it. One box will do.”

And so it went that summer. Every afternoon, the man, who eventually identified himself as Mr. McDonald, would appear right at 4:30, take a brief look around, then purchase another box of Dr. Gupta’s incense. One day, he lingered at the counter for a moment and asked, “Julia, did you know that incense was discovered and used by prehistoric peoples?”

“You mean, like by accident?”

“Exactly.” He smiled. “They put some branches on the fire, probably cedar or pine, and noticed that they smelled especially nice. Eventually, they found other aromatic woods and herbs and began to burn them for pleasure alone, rather than for warmth or light or cooking.”

Thereafter, he would impart each day some brief fact about incense: its origins and formulations, or its use over the years, or some literary mention of incense. For each historical incense milestone, he’d relate something else that happened in that era—an invention, the fall of a civilization, a war, the birth of someone famous, or some sign in the heavens. Julia began to look forward to each day’s mini ‘history lesson.’ “Are you a retired professor, or something, Mr. McDonald?” she asked him on a July afternoon.

“Not at all. I was a pharmacist. But the business changed, and after my wife died, I couldn’t keep up, so I retired.” He paid for that day’s box of incense and held out a hand for his change.

“I’m out of pennies. Is a Canadian penny okay?” Julia asked.

“That will be just fine.”

The first Friday in September was Julia’s last day at Wooten’s, as well as registration day at Benison. Mrs. Wooten let Julia leave early to register, so, immersed in labyrinthine school paperwork, Julia didn’t see or even think about Mr. McDonald at all that day.

School began. Julia got caught up in the new term: running to classes, looking for interesting boys, meeting with her friends, studying, writing, playing tennis, and having fun. Wooten’s was no longer part of her busy, busy life, and she completely forgot about it.

During Winter break, she and her friends decided to move off-campus for the next semester. They found an affordable semi-furnished house not far from school. The girls drew lots for room assignments: Julia drew the east bedroom, which included a new bed, a matching chest of drawers, and an antique roll-top desk–perfect for a student. One drawer of the desk was locked. The rental agent, when asked, shrugged. “There’s no key. But there’s plenty of room in the other drawers.”

One day late in January, a reflected beam of morning sunlight reached the back of a pigeon-hole in the desk, illuminating a shiny brass key. Surprised, Julia fished it out and tried it in the lock. It worked. Smiling, she slid the drawer open and discovered seventy-five little boxes of Dr. Gupta’s Assorted Meditation Incense Cones, still in their cellophane wrappers, unopened, with all the store receipts. And a lone Canadian penny.



Image by Vanessa Pike-Russell vis Flicker

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