It was this smell which greeted me when I arrived in Galveston for the first time in 1985, shortly after the death of my grandfather. My mother, my grandmother and I were in town to visit some relative or another, and retrieve photographs of the deceased. I'd never met this relative, and quite honestly, from the age of the photographs in which she appeared, I assumed her to be dead. When I got my first noseful of Galveston's briny air, I silently wished she were.
My grandfather worked at a spring factory, had lost most of his right hand in an accident, had served in the 101st Airborne Regiment in WWII, and had been shot down over Germany and spent time in a German prison camp. He would come home from work on Fridays with a case of beer on each arm, ice them both down in a big red cooler on the porch and then sit outside drinking beer with salt sprinkled on the top of the can, smoking cigarettes one after the other. I'd sit with him, and together we'd watch the light fade from the Earth until the only thing I could see was his face, highlighted in orange as he took a drag from his cigarette. On those nights, it felt like we were the only two people on the planet.
He gave me my first taste of beer, taught me how to ride a motorcycle (mainly by watching) and in more ways than I can count, showed me what it meant to be a man and a Texan. I have his hat in my closet and carry his knife in my pocket. Cancer took his life and left me the knickknacks. As the aroma of Galveston struck me full-on, I wished I was spending time with him instead of digging through old boxes in a stupid little town in an ugly old house with a person I'd never met. I knew it was wrong, but to my child's mind, the trade made perfect sense. "I'll trade you an unknown old lady card for the grandfather." But life doesn't work like that.
If the eyes are the window to the soul, the nose is the back door. Our memories of things, places and events are inextricably tied to our memories of their smells. Sharing space in my mental repository with other suggestive aromas is the putrid stench of decomposing aquatic life mixed with the chemical tang of naphthalene. The combined power of these heady nasal irritants literally took away my asthmatic breath in 1985, but today, owing to the electrochemical voodoo of my mind, I associate their smell with one of the most unexpectedly best times of my life from which a succession of great, somewhat-related memories which have followed.
To explain the first step on the road to Mario smelling like mothballs, allow me to share a secret about assumed-to-be-dead relatives: They usually have lots of cool stuff lying around, and my great-something-or-another in Galveston was no exception. A few moments after my mother and I arrived in her home, I was presented with a box of Archie comics, which had been waiting in a secret closet of mystery on the off chance that a child might happen by with a few days to kill. And so, while my mother and my grandmother retired with Mrs. Assumed-to-be-dead to dig up photos of the deceased, I ensconced myself in a spare bedroom, in this house, in the town that smelled of mothballs, and set about escaping into a box full of wonder.
Archie comics aren't Great Literature by any stretch, but Archie, Jughead and Veronica seemed to me to be ambassadors from a forgotten age, wooing me with their hints at a life that used to be. Half of the jokes barely made sense almost 30 years after their publish (Archie stands behind Veronica's latest suitor, preparing, the suitor assumes, coffee for his guest. "One lump or two," Archie asks, his upraised fist clenching a cudgel), but the clarity of the narrative and brightly colored panels spoke to me; took me away from my pain, transporting me to a place where even conflict is funny.