By Michelle Railey
I dream about those brass plates on the trees sometimes. They were small: the size of rectangular dog tags, maybe two postage stamps wide. They were engraved with the species of the tree and screwed into the trunk: tiny brass screws on little brass plates, biting into trees that were tall and strong and old. Elm, Oak, Maple.
It was at Darrough Chapel Elementary School in Kokomo, Indiana, the early 1980s. I went back after 2000 and walked around the yard, looking at the remaining trees, looking for their names. The plates were gone. It took me longer than it should have to realize that, as the trees grew, of course their brass plates would just pop right off. There were, to be honest, many less trees on the school’s yard than there had used to be.
Trees are stronger than engraved brass plates and time is stronger than trees. Still, the loss of the tags saddened me, even after I remembered that the brass would be tarnished and green and unreadable, even if they had stayed attached to their trunks. But still, there it is, a memory that moves me: it’s vivid, it’s tactile. The brass plates may as well be screwed into me. Elm, oak, maple.
There is not a fall that, when I smell wood smoke, I don’t see those tags, read those words, wonder if those trees were real. Darrough Chapel, I think, burned their trash and the smell of smoke is recess and brass tags and picking up acorns, small moments of quietude between coloring contests and pretending I didn’t already know how to read in order not to stand out (except when I just wanted to show off but that’s a different story).
The smell of smoke, the feel of tree trunks, the gleam of brass. This is fall, forever and always. And sometimes I wonder if I will ever know if the tags were real. And, always, I miss them. I loved the tags on the trees. I thought all forests must have them; all forests should have them. And perhaps, woodsmoke and acorns notwithstanding, perhaps I dreamt them and they were never really there. Being six on a fall afternoon feels nearly as foreign to me as pressing little child’s fingers against brass plates on rough trunks.
Elm, oak, maple.
II. Tempera Paint
While we’re discussing elementary school (and let’s face it, fall and elementary school are practically synonymous), fall is forever the smell of tempera paint. Okay, so a close second would be that paste: the white kind that arrived to the desks in Popsicle molds; the kind that fills glue sticks, the kind that Chris (it is always a Chris) eats.
But, firstly, it is tempera paint: thick and distinctive and available only in red, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, and black. If you want purple, mix your own. Your choices are red, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black.
In fall, pre-Halloween, you only need the red, yellow, orange, and black. In fact, I don’t even know that the teacher would even bring out the other colors. In fall, pre-Halloween, the only craft one would be attempting with the pungent, vaguely vinegary temperas would be the autumn leaf thing: Take a leaf. Goo the veiny side with tempera. Press against paper to make a leaf print. Repeat until math class or lunch, whichever comes first.
Autumn is, forever, not only wood smoke but the thick weird smell of tempera paint and ink blots. (No matter how careful you were, there were always blots on your damned leaf print. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about here.)
Now what with college-ing myself into an art history degree, I know that tempera is not what passes (or passed) for “tempera” in American elementary schools. Classic temperas are based on, usually, egg as a binder, mixed with high-quality dyes. American elementary school tempera is poster paint (glorified food coloring plus something that must be cornstarch and cider vinegar). But, in the way of shopping centers elevating themselves with “centre” and “olde,” well, American tempera in first grade is definitely low-grade dye and glue (Chris, don’t eat that!) masquerading as something egg-y and special. If it weren’t special, we’d have had it in the regular classroom. Like that paste. (Seriously, Chris.)
I like that when October arrives, year after year, there’s that one week before you start thinking in exclusively Halloween terms; I like that week. The only thing that week cares about is fall leaves. If the real ones haven’t turned yet, it doesn’t matter. You will still, if only in memory, if only mentally, be pressing a leaf (green, live, dead, fallen, doesn’t matter) into “tempera” paint (red, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, or black— don’t choose green, blue, or black, honestly, what is wrong with you?) and pressing it against a paper plate or a poster board or a piece of paper.
Your parents will see it on the very first PTA/PTO night of the year; or Parent-Teacher meeting. Or whatevs.
As an adult, you don’t get those much; at least not for yourself.
But that doesn’t mean that early October does not equal tempera paint. Plus leaf. Plus paper.
And you know that it does.
III. Violets: C. Howard’s Scented Chewing Gum
Autumn in New York is a storied thing, a song-filled thing.
And, homesick Midwesterner, should you find yourself in 1994, on the streets of New York on a gray October day, bustling to an acting class, you might, just might, find yourself at a newsstand, buying Choward’s (Violet) Scented Chewing Gum.
The reasons for this are numerous, obviously (eye roll). For starters, you’re young. You know, literally, nothing. And there you are, starry-eyed, in New York and the streets smell like asphalt and coffee and fall smoke (Darrough Chapel? Memory?). Occasionally, with a whiff of hot dog and falafel. Sometimes trash and piss. Depends on what block you’re on.
So, there you are, at the newsstand, with a dollar in your pocket just begging to be spent. You had walked, perhaps, too quickly and arrived outside your dreaded acting class too early. Yeah, you should have dawdled in front of Fish’s Eddy, the way you usually do. You should have spent your dollar at Timothy’s Coffees of the World (it’s October and they have spiced cranberry juice!). Your classmates are smoking and talking about things and it’s easier for you, an introvert, to pretend to be busy with your dollar and your newsstand. Though, damn you, why can’t you just walk more slowly?
And there it is, at the newsstand, gleaming in its old-fashioned-y package: “Choward’s Violet Chewing Gum.”
What could possibly go wrong, you think. I mean, it’s 1994 and Victoria magazine has taught you (for the past several years) that all things misty and/or velvet are picturesque and noble. Phantom of the Opera, in fact, is a large reason why you’re there for acting class in the first place and, well, “Choward’s” is just begging to be all purchased and consumed.
You might feel all refined and Eliza Doolittle (post-Henry Higgins) buying it.
And so you do.
It is…disgusting, quite honestly.
I mean, you’ve had your fair share of Big Red, Juicy Fruit, and Big League Chew. In fact, you’ve even experimented with Hubba Bubba, Bubbalicious (you were young and everyone was doing it), and the delightfully cushion-shaped and liquid-filled Freshen Up. You’ve had your long-running love affair with Extra, all the Extras: the dark pink, the light pink, the fluorescent green, and the dark blue.
And now, there is this exotic, Victorian purple Violet chewing gum.
Before acting class. (This somehow makes it better. We live for the arts, you know.)
And it smells and tastes like gagging on somebody’s grandma’s mauve lace curtains. Maybe your grandma, maybe all grandmas, but my god, they actually sell this to people?
So much for sophistication. So much for your whole Little Match Girl, Christine Daae, Victoriana fantasy.
It’s terrible. And, worse, that dollar could have gotten you a bagel with cream cheese – toasted — at H&H Bagels. It could have gotten you a pear and a bagel at Zabar’s. It could have bought two hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya.
And now, there you are, before acting class, which frankly you don’t at all care for, and your mouth tastes like dead grandmother flowers and you still have five pieces left.
All illusions are dashed.
And, then, an older you googles this “Choward’s Violet Chewing Gum.” And it’s not some old British Dickensian traditional rotting-tooth disguise. Nope. It dates to the 1930s in New York. And it’s “C. Howard,” not “Choward.”
Illusions repaired. I mean, how New York can you get? Some 1930 New Yorker’s very own brand of crazy floral chewing gum, purchased at a rickety, ubiquitous news stand, and you’re standing there on the streets of Manhattan, chomping on it while avoiding eye contact with any other human. Before acting class.
Long live “Choward’s.” It’s a very little bit preferable to Chris’s most favorite elementary school paste.
I threw the four remaining pieces of Violet gum away. You would have done the same.
Autumn in New York is forever that dollar you’ll just never get back.
With apologies, from the vaults––
October 1994: “The Time of My Life” from the musical Salad Days (1952) by Julian Slade (music, lyrics) and Dorothy Reynolds (lyrics). (1) I was young and stupid. (2) I was assigned this. I, like, literally had no choice. Piano: Richard Danley, probably against his will.
And from December 1994, “Dear Friend” from She Loves Me (Music by Sheldon Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick). Piano still by Richard Danley, who smiled at me in the elevator once and whose compliment can still bring me to tears. Probably still playing on a bet or something. But hell if I know.
I guess, see also “Henry Purcell and Voice Potato.”
2 thoughts on “Brass, Tempera, and Violets”
I just LOVE your style of writing. You are so good at putting together these touching pieces. And the songs you sang were just wonderful. You bring me to tears sometimes.
No tears. I’m a schmuck and a loser. But, oh my lord, I love you.