PAPOTAGE

I remember, albeit only vaguely, as I must have been just five or six, taking a day trip with my family to Idaho City, a pretty little town in the mountains above Boise. There was a strange smell in Idaho City that day. Maybe something was burning in the woods, or an odor was wafting up from the farms in the valley. But our reaction once we had separated from our parents (who, I imagine, were visiting a friend or shopping for figurines) was to march around the town, arms linked, chanting, "Hi, we're from Nampa. Idaho City stinks. And so do you!"

Among the many things about this memory that makes me cringe is the misguided snobbery. We thought we were city slickers amongst country bumpkins. But Nampa was a city of, then, 25,000 people. It was bleak and ugly, full of farm supply stores, used car lots, and trailer parks, whereas Idaho City was a pretty little Gold-Rush town in the forest near a ski resort. And as far as stink is concerned, I have never been in a town that had such chronic odor problems as Nampa. It was situated in a depression in the flat farmland of Treasure Valley. North of town, just a mile away from our house, stood the White Satin Sugar Plant, the world’s second-largest sugar beet processing facility.

The aroma produced when sugar is processed can be replicated by putting a pot of molasses on the stove to boil, then forgetting about it until the molasses dries and chars and the pot itself begins melt. Then add a dash of sulfur, and you've got it: a sweet, acrid odor that invades your hair and clothes. In the Fall, when production was at its peak, the sugar beet factory would make a huge white plume visible for miles around, often hanging directly above our house. If there was no wind, the smell, mixed with the odors of the slaughterhouses, also on the north side of Nampa, would settle into the bowl of the town and not move for days. If you went to Boise, thirty miles away, you drove up out of it.

But we, as kids chanting our mantra against Idaho City, didn't care about accuracy. There were so many of us that we comprised our own gang. Usually I was a goody-goody, but here I happily lost myself in the mob.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before we turned on each other. Later that day the older boys, Pat and Roy, caught a garder snake by the tail, and dangled it in my face. I screamed and ran. They chased me, swinging the snake, and it actually bit me. I remember the bite marks, two little red dots, just like you'd imagine.

Vestal McIntyre is the author of the story collection, You Are Not the One.  He is the recipient of 2006 Fellowships in Fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as a 2006 Lambda Literary Award.  This piece is an excerpt from "Mom-Voice," a nonfiction essay forthcoming in the anthology From Boys to Men. http://www.vestalmcintyre.com