Last week, I took a job because I liked the smell.
The job is at a nonprofit housed in one of the slightly decrepit buildings on Prospect Street, whose steps were lined, when I went for my interview, with pulpy piles of what must have been the first fallen leaves of the season. They smelled rich, that perfect blend of crisp and slightly rotten that only comes from red leaves breathing their last on the sidewalk. Far up Prospect, in the hush beyond the hustle of cars and construction, it smelled like autumn in the suburbs, and although I liked the interview it was the instinctual association that led me take the job.
Fall is my favorite season, and given that there are only four to choose from, I’m hardly the only one. I tell myself it’s because it reminds me of the essence of home, of childhood, of everything, but I don’t know why. It’s never been a particularly special season in my daily life. I always loved jumping in the leaves and disliked going on hikes with my parents, as much as I loved and loathed swimming and nature walks in the summer. I’ve only been apple picking, that seminal autumn activity, once in my entire life. School was always fun to start, but after a few weeks it became a big marsh of homework until Thanksgiving.
What the season is, really, is a long slide (a fall, you could say) into winter and all its malaise. Many of the things I like about fall — taking scarves and snow boots out of the attic, buying pens and pencils in anticipation of the beginning of classes — are preparations to face winter. Even apple-picking, the most innocuous of Saturday afternoon rituals, is a miniature harvest season, a gathering of goods to sustain oneself through the winter. Everything about fall is tinged with its proximity to winter, just a harbinger of things to come: the last sightings of grass on the ground, the last days of warm sun before months of gray, the last plants in the garden finally coming into their own.
Now, grown-up to some extent, I still feel connected to fall. The smell of the crushed leaves as I climb the steps to work in the morning reminds me of the best and most important parts of myself, even if I’m not sure what they are. During fall, I feel more myself than at any other time — at least, more like the self I want to be.
I sit in my desk on Prospect Street, deciphering grant applications, pretending to be a professional for eight hours a week. I’ve never done this before; I’ve never done a lot of things before, and as usual a million worries crowd my mind about what will happen with this job, this year, in a way they just don’t in the summer. But outside the branches droop, laden with yellow leaves, the way they have done every year I’ve been around to watch them. Fall isn’t perfect; it’s always getting harsher, moving toward winter. But, just as I hope to, it walks toward the uncertain future with some measure of grace, enjoying on the way the glorious present.